The Illini are a perfect 5-0 for the first time since 1951 thanks to their ability to win close games. After opening up with a pair of double-digit victories over Arkansas State (33-15) and South Dakota State (56-3), the team has won its last three games by three points each, the first time that has happened in school history. Last week, Ron Zook's squad outlasted Northwestern in its Big Ten opener, 38-35.
Kevin Wilson's Hoosiers have struggled in his first season at the helm. The team has dropped four of its first five games in 2011, with the lone win coning against South Carolina State (38-21) a few weeks ago. Since then, Indiana has dropped two straight close affairs, falling to North Texas on the road (24-21) and Penn State at home last weekend (16-10).
This game marks the 69th all-time meeting in this series. Illinois holds a 44-21-3 advantage all-time and has won three of the last four meetings overall.
The Illini battled all the way back from an 18-point deficit against Northwestern last weekend to remain unbeaten on the year. Sophomore quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and senior wideout A.J. Jenkins were instrumental in the victory. Scheelhaase threw for a career-high 391 yards and three TDs against the Wildcats. Jenkins had a career outing as well, setting a school-record with 268 receiving yards and three scores.
What makes Illinois dangerous is its offensive balance. The team is averaging a robust 433.6 yards per game, with 209.8 coming on the ground and 223.8 through the air. The rushing attack lacks a true workhorse, but makes up for it with several contributors. Troy Pollard's 53.8 ypg leads the way despite only 28 touches on the year. Scheelhaase is next in line at 51.8 ypg, followed by Donovonn Young (48.2 ypg) and Jason Ford (44.8 ypg). The quartet have found the end zone a combined 12 times on the ground.
Scheelhaase has completed nearly 70 percent of his passes, for 1,028 yards, with seven TDs and just three INTs. Jenkins has been dominant, hauling in 40 balls, for 633 yards and five scores and is averaging 126.6 ypg.
The Illinois defense has been sharp for the most part in 2011, limiting the opposition to just 295.6 yards of total offense per game. The Illini have been particularly stingy against the run, yielding a mere 79.0 ypg, on just 2.4 ypc. Getting upfield and making plays is what this unit is all about, having already recorded 40 TFLs and 17 sacks on the season.
Junior ends Whitney Mercilus (5.5 sacks) and Michael Buchanan (4.5 sacks) have led the way in that regard, ranking one and two in the Big Ten in sacks. Senior middle linebacker Ian Thomas paces the team with 32 total tackles. Sophomore LB Jonathan Brown (30 tackles, 6.0 TFLs, 2.0 sacks, one INT) has been a force in the middle as well, but will miss this game as Zook has suspended the youngster for his conduct during the Northwestern game.
"We are extremely disappointed by what happened on Saturday and Jonathan knows that," Zook said. "We don't condone that type of behavior in our program. I've talked to Jonathan and he understands that. He is a good person, a spiritual person, and no one feels worse about it than him. But he got caught up in the moment, made a serious mistake and must deal with the consequences."
While not as explosive as Indiana, Illinois has a balanced offensive approach as well. The Hoosiers are netting 382.2 yards per game, 126.0 ypg on the ground and 256.2 ypg through the air.
The quarterback situation isn't exactly stable. Coach Wilson gave Dusty Kiel his first career start against PSU last weekend and Kiel went 22-of-45 passing, for 184 yards with one TD and one INT. Edward Wright-Baker, who suffered from a sprained ankle last week, should be able to go this weekend. He has thrown for 925 yards, with four TDs against two INTs this season.
Senior wideout Demarlo Belcher is the top target regardless of who is throwing the football. The 6-5 senior leads the team with 20 receptions, for 250 yards and one TD.
The Hoosiers have struggled against the run this season, allowing 190.4 yards per game on 4.3 yards per carry. To make matters worse, the team has also had problems generating a consistent pass rush, with a mere two sacks in the first five games. Still, the squad is +3 in turnover margin, including forcing seven fumbles. The defense as a whole is a work in progress with several freshmen getting starts, including end Bobby Richardson and DBs Forisse Hardin and Drew Hardin.
Senior LB Jeff Thomas has been active, leading the way in both overall tackles (39) and TFLs (7.0).
Coach Wilson needs his squad to step up this week to properly defend Illinois.
"Good tackling, proper coverage, staying on top of routes, rushing the quarterback. Those would be some good things to show. These guys are good, and when you've got a quarterback run game, a little option game, you know you get some concern because you've got to account for him. It's a different animal back there. You know Nathan Scheelhaase is their leading rusher. They've got very good running backs. They will get downhill."