Illini Football Next Level Defenders: Corey Liuget and Martez Wilson

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Don’t be surprised if the Illini run the table the rest of the way. Even if they don’t, already at 5-3, (3-2 in Big Ten) they have greatly improved upon last year’s 3-9 mark and will likely make their way into a pretty decent bowl. This season is a pleasant surprise to say the least.

The MVP of 2010 is probably newly installed defensive coordinator Vic Koenning. The Illini rank 12th nationally in points allowed (16.8 ppg), 15th in total defense (301.4 ypg), 19th in pass defense (183.9) and 26th in rushing yards allowed (117.5 ypg), all while facing the toughest schedule in the nation.

At the end of last season, Illinois was 96th in scoring defense (30.2 ppg), 100th in pass defense (248.8), 91st in total defense (403.3 ypg) and 76th in rushing defense (154.4 ypg).

And Koenning and company have personnel too. Among the talent on the Illini roster is a trio of juniors with NFL level measurables and potential. Tailback Mike LeShoure, Middle Linebacker Martez Wilson and Defensive Tackle Corey Liuget will probably all be playing on Sundays.

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Martez Wilson: Crucial to the Illini Defense

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Few have been more maligned on the Illini defense than highly touted Illini recruit Martez Wilson.  From his lack of a mark on the field to his off-field exploits, he’s had a tough go of it in Champaign.

However, much like they should be, his experiences have only gone to make him stronger, again, both on and off the field. He missed pretty much all of 2009 due to injury, but one good piece of news coming from the Zook Big Ten Media Day press conference, was the health of middle linebacker Martez Wilson.

“He had a great, great spring. He had a great camp. He was playing as well as any Mike linebacker I’ve been around probably anywhere,” Zook said. “In fact, actually he went through spring, he didn’t go through the contact. It was hard to keep him out of it because he was always trying to stick his face where he shouldn’t stick it. Just got his final checkup last week, and got 100 percent clean bill of health and ready to go.”

Wilson’s health means that the defense will automatically be more athletic and dangerous than they were last season.

By Paul Schmidt

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Big Ten Power Rankings Start of Conf Play

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By Paul M. Banks

This will be the  final week that I can feature only one set of records beside each name. It’s the start of conference play! Meaning I’ll soon be including Big Ten records. Through three weeks of play, the Big Ten is the only Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) conference to feature five 3-0 teams. Four of the Big Ten’s undefeated teams will square off on the opening Saturday, including Indiana playing at Michigan and Iowa facing a primeti me game on the road at Penn State. A re-match from one of last year’s most noteworthy and exciting intraconference tussles.

1. Penn State (3-0) We still can’t say for sure if they’re for real given how their schedule has been about as challenging as the puzzles on a Denny’s kids menu. But their defense has been much more impressive than even Nittany Lion optimists would have predicted. Not many would have prognosticated they would hold each of their first three opponents to less than a touchdown. JoePa said it best at Big Ten Media Day, when asked if he was worried about this team, “when that phone rings on Sunday, I shake!”

2. Ohio State (2-1) Saturday has all the makings of a “trap game.” In years the Illini are mediocre or better, Illinois has owned them at the Horsehoe. Remember ’07 when Illinois beat a #1 squad for the first time in a half-century? In seasons that OSU has had a major talent advantage over Illinois, it’s what you expect: Ohio State 77, Illinois 0. Or something like that. But this year, expect a tight game. Buckeyes need to make a statement if they want to get their 5th straight conference title.

3. Michigan (3-0) Last week everyone learned the name Tate Forcier. This week it’s Carlos Brown becoming a household name for college football geeks. I guess no one’s talking about illegal practice sessions anymore? They could soon start discussing New Year’s Day bowl games soon instead.

4. Iowa (3-0) You know all about the OL and defensive stalwarts. The next name you should become familiar with is the man filling Jewel Hampton’s shoes (who was supposed to fill Shonn Greene’s shoes). RB Adam Robinson who posted his first career 100-yard effort with 101 yards on 18 carries (5.6 avg.) 2 TDs against Arizona.

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5. Wisconsin (3-0) In the words of TSB Badger correspondent Jake McCormick, “Scott Tolzien continues to grow into the starting quarterback position by completing 15-of-20 passes for 159 yards, two touchdowns, and no turnovers. The running backs were another story, but I’ll get to that later.”

6. Minnesota (2-1) For a half or three quarters, you could say they hung with one of the best teams in the country. And did you see that TD reception of Eric Decker’s? How he hung on to it after that bone-crushing hit. If he choose to pursue MLB instead of the NFL after graduation,  I would be scared for outfield walls everywhere.

7. Northwestern (2-1) Is Syracuse trying to join the Big Ten? Their schedule says yes. If so, congratulate the Orange, and ESPN’s new favorite player Greg Paulus, on their first in-conference win. The good news for Northwestern- they’ve found a couple receivers, and their QB Mike Kafka is indeed a dual threat. The bad news, their defensive line and secondary have no depth, and is currently riddled by injuries. By the way, coming to Evanston this week is the best WR in the Big Ten, Eric Decker. How’s that going to work? Perhaps similar to when the two teams met in ’07, 49-48 OT.

This is the “When does Basketball season start section?” These traditional basketball powers look very shaky so far.

8. Illinois (1-1) If we don’t learn what they’re about this week in Columbus, we’ll surely learn the following week when they host Penn State. With 61 rushing yards against Illinois State, senior running back Daniel Dufrene went over 1,000 yards for his career. He is the 35th player in Illinois history to reach the 1,000-yard milestone, and the Zooker should have made him the unquestioned starter since the day Rashard Mendenhall left. If they keep giving more carries to Jason Ford and Troy Pollard instead of Dufrene…hey, is that infamous domain name fireronzook.com available again?

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9. Indiana (3-0) Can I register this domain name: indianafootballisnowherenearasgoodastheirrecord.com? If it’s taken, let’s try hoosierswillfinishlastinthebigtendespitetheirgoodnon-conferencestart.com

10. Michigan State (1-2) Perhaps they’ve found their answer at QB in Kirk Cousins. He put up some big numbers, but made some crucial mistakes. MSU made a nice rebound from a disastrous start at ND. But ultimately, they accomplished little more than help Jimmy Clausen’s NFL Draft stock.

11. Purdue (1-2) Is Notre Dame trying to join the Big Ten? Their schedule seems to say so. I think the bowl bid train has left the station already. But you can believe in (Danny) Hope, right? After all, that’s the message marketed in the Presidential Election last fall. The Era of Hope will bring wins, just not now.

The Illini may be Alright this Year

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By Paul M. Banks

This past weekend, the University of Illinois Fighting Illini got some measure of redemption from their week one DISASTER in St. Louis. The Illini responded from their 37-9 thrashing at the hands of Missouri to rout FCS opponent Illinois St. 45-17 in Champaign. Granted it was against a lower tier team predicted to finish near the bottom of their vastly inferior conference, but the Illini did without the services of arguably their three if not best, most important, players: QB Juice Williams, WR Arrelious Benn, and LB Martez Wilson. Williams, a Chicago native who’s been tutored by another Chicago product and star quarterback, Donovan McNabb contributed just one series before getting hurt. His injury is not supposed to be extremely serious and his return is key, for the Illini to have a legitimate leader.

Williams spoke about what he learned from working with McNabb. “Keep your head…a majority of quarterbacks know that when things start going on around them, people start talking, things start to tank. It’s just the quarterback mentality to let everything go and just stay focused and go from there, once you start paying attention to everything negative going on around you, you kind of lose sight of what you’re trying to do, so I just block everything out and just go,” Williams stated.

His top-flight receiver in a highly heralded corps is Arrelious “Rejus” Benn, a projected top ten pick in the NFL Draft. But his stock is falling because Rejus has been a total non-factor so far. The Illini receivers have been extremely hyped, and if Benn isn’t 100% healthy then other players like Jeff Cumberland, Jarred Fayson, and Tight End Michael Hoohoomanawananuii (have fun with trying to pronounce that) will need to step up big time. illinois

Illini Head Coach Ron Zook also needs to realize who his starting tailback is. It should be Daniel Dufrene, with Jason Ford as a capable back-up, not the other way around. They’ve battled some injuries as well this young season, so they fit right in with the rest of the team.

On the other side of the ball, it comes down to another well-recruited Chicago product, Martez Wilson, who moves over to Middle Linebacker, and needs to be the “quarterback” of the defense.

“The last two, actually the last three years, our Mike linebacker has led the Big Ten in tackles,” Zook said. “I don’t want to put the pressure on him that he’s not doing a good job if he doesn’t lead the Big Ten in tackles, but he’s a guy that a lot of things revolve around him, with our calls and so forth, and it’s going to be important that he has the kind of year that we think he can.” Wilson was also hurt and missed the last game. But Illinois won in impressive fashion, despite all the key missing pieces, which is a good sign. It’s also a good thing they have this week off- to get ready and healthy for mighty Ohio St. on September 26th.