#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

scheelhaase

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

nathan-scheelhaase

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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Illini Running Back Situation: Who takes over for Mikel Leshoure?

mikel-leshoure

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? Hopefully, history doesn’t repeat.

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Illini Tailback Situation Part 2 Daniel Dufrene Troy Pollard

Illinois Ohio St football

By Paul M. Banks

Heading into this season the talk about the Illinois Fighting Illini program, certainly offensively at least, was about the passing game; and the stellar group of receivers that were allegedly one of the best position groups in the nation. There were lots of questions about the defense and the running game- the latter of which took a big step backward last year. Illinois lead the Big Ten in rushing in ’06 and ’07.

But after Saturday’s phantasmagoria, no one’s raving about Juice Williams and Arrelious Benn anymore, the defense seems even worse than anyone’s lowest expectations, and the tailback situation is more unresolved than ever.

The Illini truly have a rotation of four guys at the position, with no real bonafide starter. The depth chart hierarchy is far from established. The injury bug bit both Daniel Dufrene and Jason Ford, the two guys who shared starting duties last season. Dufrene dressed in St. Louis, but didn’t play. Ford touched the ball once, as he nursed an ankle injury.

Illini Head Coach Ron Zook has repeatedly said that you don’t need to have a legitimate number one/go-to-guy at the position, and that it’s perfectly fine to go with a “tailback by committee” approach. And in certain situations (say for instance you have solid depth and talent at almost every other position) that scenario could work. But with a total disaster within every component of the team Saturday, in a game in where the Illini were heavy favorites, finding a dependable and reliable ball-carrier would be a great place to start picking up the pieces. Illinois needs to show that the program can recover from the early departure of Rashard Mendenhall.

Here are two of the candidates that could try and play the same role that Mendenhall did in ’07.

Daniel Dufrene and Troy Pollard

5-11, 205 pound senior Daniel Dufrene has without a doubt showed the most talent of all the four candidates. He’s also BY FAR the most accomplished. He’s mostly known for his controversial 80 yard run in the Illini’s big win over at #1 Ohio State in 2007. Because the run ended with a fumble out of bounds, and depending on who’s side you’re on…maybe the ball should have been OSU’s? The huge upset was one of four games in which Dufrene has rushed for 95 yards or more.  In a perfect world, Dufrene would be the unquestioned starter, as he has the most talent and speed burst, and he’s averaged 5.8 yards a carry during his Illini career.

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What’s kept him from being the feature back, isn’t really clear. It’s been said that he’s missed games because of arcane off-the-field issues, being in the coach’s doghouse, and mysterious health problems. He has had some injury issues, missed time for personal reasons and it’s rumored that he’s fallen out of favor with members of the coaching staff, at times. “It’s just up to the coaches. I probably did something in the game or in practice that they didn’t like and that kept me out of the game. Ultimately I just have to do what I have to do to stay on the field,” Dufrene said when asked this veru question at Illini Media Day. So we can’t exactly answer why he’s never carried the rock for 25-30 times in a game. 

 

His career single game high for carries is 19. Perhaps a self-fulfilling prophecy keeps him from becoming the feature back- people (rightly or wrongly) think he can’t carry the load, and thus he’s never granted the opportunity.

Dufrene has a lot to prove and goals to accomplish once he reaches the field this season. “Pretty much, I just want to show my toughness at handling things better than I did last year, and just being more of a leader to my fellow running backs and the whole team,” he said. Conversely he defines his best assets as “Just my vision and my speed, and also my leadership on the field. I played the Rose Bowl and in other big games so I know how to handle things a little bit better than the freshmen and sophomores would, because they weren’t here. The year we went to the Rose Bowl it was a long season, and it was a grind, and they gotta understand that.”

In order to get better, Dufrene does have a couple of specific RB role models in mind. “Adrian Peterson, or even Marshawn Lynch, I really kind of like his running style, also. Even Jahvid Best out at California, anyone I can pick up little things from, and learn from and make myself better, that’s what I do,” Dufrene told me.
troypollard

Troy Pollard has had to fight off a lot of injuries taking a medical redshirt in ’07 and missing half the season in ’08. He has been explosive when actually on the gridiron, averaging six yards a carry during his illini career. And he averaged 7.6 on Sat as he led the team in rsuhing. I asked him about what he brings to the table “vision, cut back ability,” he responded. And also what he needs to work on. “Pass-blocking, I’m not really that big,” Pollard answered. Perhaps he’ll contribute more this season? as he’s finally healthy. “I feel like I can make all my cuts, I’m feeling 100%”