Illinois’ 6-0 start looks pretty legitimate to me.
The Fighting Illini have no glaring weaknesses, and a defense that was expected to struggle to replace a handful of big names who headed to the NFL has been a strength so far.
Last year, Illinois looked like it was about halfway to being a competent team thanks to the addition of new coordinators on both sides of the ball. They played harder, they seemed to have more of a plan but they still had fairly regular lapses that set them back.
In 2011, they seem to have continued to mature on both sides of the ball.
Offensively, this is no surprise. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase flashed some ability last year as a redshirt freshman, and he has made incremental improvements this year. He was always a dangerous runner, but he has added the ability to read defenses and make accurate throws this season.
His top target is senior A.J. Jenkins, whose game might remind you some of Santonio Holmes. He’s not a big guy, but he has some explosion, and he will fight for the ball when it is in the air. He leads the Big Ten in catches and receiving yards, but he is the only guy to make any type of impact at all in their passing game.
They lost running back Mikel Leshoure, but there has been a steady stream of talented runners in Champaign, and this year is no different. Jason Ford’s spring left some doubters, but he is a solid option as a big back, and freshman Donovonn Young is an exciting prospect they are bringing along. Troy Pollard is the leading rusher, but I see him as the least dangerous of the three.
The offensive line doesn’t really wow you, but it is effective. I think some damage can be done against it. They are not maulers by any stretch, but they will get in the way and lock people out and let people read and cut to daylight.
Schematically, they are kind of all over the map. Like Nebraska, they run some option, but not so much out of the I. They like the zone read with Scheelhaase and will run basically a triple option out of the pistol. Unlike Nebraska, Illinois is almost exclusively a zone blocking team, although they will run the occasional power play or counter with a pulling lineman.
They have a more a more mature downfield passing game, too, and I think they are more concentrated on attacking vertically than they were in the post.
Defensively, they have followed what appears to be a trend and pretty much play nickel all the time. Their SAM linebacker is a lot like Ohio State’s Star, and in fact is played this year by former safety Trulon Henry, who is a fine player. He was replaced in the back end by Steve Hull, who did not impress me at all last year as their fifth defensive back but looks to have improved this season.
Like their entire secondary, Hull will come up and make a hit. Their leading tackler is cornerback Tavon Wilson, a really physical guy who likes to play near the line of scrimmage but can cover, too. He has 41 tackles, including 4.5 for loss. I thought he and Terry Hawthorne, the other corner, were both impressive against Arizona State’s passing attack.
At linebacker, Ian Thomas continues to be a rock, and sophomore Jonathan Brown was one of the surprise success stories of the first half of the season before having to sit out the Indiana game for delivering a cheap shot to a Northwestern player the week before.
The big deal is up front, where they don’t appear to have lost a beat despite the loss of Clay Nurse and Corey Liuget. Akeem Spence moved inside and has had a great start to the season, but the big stars are Whitney Mercilus and Michael Buchanan at end. Spence had a good year at end last year, but Mercilus and Buchanan were nobodies. Buchanan is noticeably bigger but still plenty athletic for their weakside end position while Buchanan has been a terror who leads the Big Ten in sacks.
This does not look like a good matchup for Ohio State. I think Illinois is a more complete team than Nebraska. Throwing the ball is not going to be a picnic in the wind tunnel that is Memorial Stadium against a secondary that is aggressive and likes to mix things up. The Fighting Illini aren’t huge up front, so the Buckeyes are going to have to bring their hard hats to try to make some hay in the running game and create some chances to stretch the defense if they can get them creeping up toward the line of scrimmage.