#22/#18 Arizona State Sun Devils vs. Illinois Fighting Illini: Brutally Honest Game Preview

Illini Need Wide Receiver Ryan Lankford to Develop Into Third Option

Illinois Fighting Illini WR Ryan Lankford was the team’s most improved player this spring practice session. But he didn’t have a catch on Saturday in the big 33-15 win over Arkansas State. Someone preferably Lankford needs to become Illinois’ third option.

Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase threw for a career-best 267 yards. His 16 completions went to A.J. Jenkins, who had 11 catches for 148 yards and a touchdown, and Darius Millines, who caught five balls for 119 yards and a score.

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Illinois Fighting Ilini Season Preview: Offense

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Last year the Illinois Fighting Illini got a bowl win for the first time since 1999, a 38-14 drubbing of Baylor in Houston that kind of resembled their last bowl win, a 63-21 destruction of Virginia. The offense got very hot down the stretch last season, so hot that the unit set new records for points scored and total points.

This year QB Nathan Scheelhaase is up for the Maxwell Award, and the dual threat quarterback made huge strides towards the end of last year. He completed his first 12 passes (including all in the first half) of the Texas Bowl, and tossed just 1 interception in his final 7 games. He set a school record for rushing yards by a QB (858) and had a very solid 17-8 TD-INT ratio. The redshirt freshman no doubt benefited greatly form the extra practices that comes along with bowl prep.

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Jason Ford Needs to be Illini Football BMOC

When Rashard Mendenhall left the Illinois Fighting Illini with a year of eligibility left in 2007, for the NFL Draft, Illinois suffered the next year. Aside from that whole “planes cannot take down a building” tweets of idiocy and the sponsorship pullout that followed, things have gone pretty well for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Mendenhall.

But for the two years that followed, the running game suffered in Champaign. They struggled to find both offensive balance and an heir to ‘Shard. Until last year when Mikel Leshoure, wearing the same jersey #5, and also in his junior season grabbed the position and broke almost all of those big time single season school rushing records that Mendenhall had just broke in 2007. Leshoure left school early just like ‘Shard and was also a high round NFL draft pick.

What does 2011 hold?

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#38 Illinois Fighting Illini: College Football 77 in 77

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If there’s one thing I know in life, it’s that Illinois college football never ever conforms to your expectations. No one saw their two BcS appearances coming (2001, 2007); and since they followed both seasons up with sub .500 choking, both these bowl appearances are now looked upon as fluky. Whenever Illinois has been predicted to do well (2000, 2002, 2008, 2009) they fell flat on their faces. And their bowl wins (last year, 1999) come in seasons when everyone predicts them to finish near the Big Ten basement.

And I know a lot about this stuff.

My first ever sports memory was their destruction at the hands of UCLA in the 1984 Rose Bowl. I attended my first Illini game in 1991. In addition to covering the team for the school paper when I was in school there, two of my older siblings went to UI. In other words, it’s “my team,” and one of the three teams I cover regularly. So I know this stuff! And I’m excited to finally reach my team in the 77 in 77 (after all, Illini legend Red Grange, the greatest player the game has ever known) partially inspired this segment.

So where will the Illinois Fighting Illini finish this season?

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What we Learned from Fighting Illini Football Spring Game

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A small select group of things are certain in life- death, taxes, and Fighting Illini football seasons ending up much different than what you expected in the preseason. Last year’s team wasn’t expected to really do much- Yet the finished 7-6 (despite a very difficult schedule) and with a quite decisive bowl victory.

Conversely, in ’08 and ’09, expectations were sky-high heading into September, yet both of those teams flopped (and that’s putting it nicely). So what about this year? Expectations are kind of mixed, “up in the air” you might say as this year’s squad competes to become the first team to reach back-to-back bowl games since 1992.

And that’s fitting, because the 20th anniversary of the 1988-92 teams that made five consecutive bowl games will both be celebrated during the weekend festivities. If Red Grange and Robert Zuppke presided over the “Golden Years,” of Illini college football, then surely the Jeff George/Jason Verduzco/John Mackovic teams were the “silver era” of the program’s history.

That said, let’s begin the journey this fall to finding out whether or not this team will match the ’92 squad’s accomplishment.

By Paul M. Banks

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Fighting Illini Spring Football Game Preview

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Now that Mikel Leshoure left the Illini early for the NFL Draft, (and who can blame him really? He will be one of the first three running backs taken next week) Illinois college football is now headlined by sophomore QB Nathan Scheelhaase. It’s his team. And if he continue to makes strides like he did from the season finale to the Texas Bowl, things will be fine.

The 15 extra practices between the Fresno State loss and the 38-14 domination over Baylor did wonders for Scheelhaase as he completed his first 13 passes, played his best game of the season, and easily could have been co-MVP with Leshoure in that game. Even though Leshoure’s game was really quite special.

Something to really keep an eye on Saturday is Scheelhaase continuing to develop chemistry with wide receivers Ryan Lankford and Darius Millines.

But you won’t get to see the heir apparent to Leshoure at the tailback position. Jason Ford will not go Saturday.

By Paul M. Banks

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