Illinois Looking To Tune Up for Big Ten Season

By Derek Helling
Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports

This Saturday, the Fighting Illini will wrap up their non-conference schedule at home against Miami of Ohio. Besides improving their record to 3-1, there are some other goals that Illinois should look to achieve.

This Saturday is the perfect opportunity for Illinois to showcase versatility in its offense. Through three games, this has been an offense dependent on the arm and feet of quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. Scheelhaase has been responsible for 125 of Illinois’ 205 offensive plays, and his 902 total yards are 69 percent of the Illini’s total. Scheelhaase has scored eight of Illinois’ 14 touchdowns as well.

While the number of rushing attempts to passing attempts is nearly dead even, the yardage shows a stark contrast. 918 of Illinois 1,313 total yards have came through the air. Against Miami on Saturday, Illinois should try to increase the effectiveness of its running game by putting the ball in the hands of running backs Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson more. Ferguson and Young have combined for 57 carries for 270 yards.

The defensive numbers aren’t that bad. The Illini are holding opponents to just under 29 points a game and have forced four turnovers in three games. Illinois has limited its opponents to a 41 percent conversion rate on third downs thanks in large part to its linebacking corps.

The leader of that linebacker group is Jonathan Brown, who currently sets the pace for the Big Ten in tackles with 38. Brown also leads Illinois in sacks with 1.5. Linebacker Mason Monheim is having a good season thus far as well, and is second in the Big Ten with 30 tackles and a sack. Illinois needs its defense to be about more than just Brown and Monheim in order to compete for a Big Ten championship though.

The quarterback pressure is the biggest weakness for this Illinois defense. Illinois has four sacks through three games, and only one belonging to its defensive line. This Saturday should be a good opportunity to step up the volume of pressure packages that the Illini put on the field.

As it wraps up the non-conference season, Illinois must look to not only continue to do what has won them two games, but also improve on those areas that have been lacking through three games. Pressuring the quarterback and running the football must improve for the Illini to make it to Indianapolis.

Derek Helling is a Big 10 football writer for Follow him on Twitter @DRokSH, “Like” him on Facebook or add him to your network on Google+

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