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September 3, 2012

First look: Illinois

Brock Osweiler had no chance, the former Arizona State quarterback saw more Illini jerseys than those of his own offensive lineman.

Bullied, beaten and bruised, Illinois sacked Osweiler six times when the Sun Devils visited the Big Ten school a season ago and lost 17-14 despite tallying 122 more total yards.

Now with the Sun Devils playing an arguably weaker offensive line than 2011, Illinois is already licking its chops to get after both ASU quarterbacks, Taylor Kelly and Michael Eubank, when the Illini come to Tempe on Saturday for a rematch as both teams try to reach 2-0.

"We just won most of the 1-on-1 battles and got to the quarterback even if we didn't sack him," Illinois senior defensive end Michael Buchanan said of last season's game in which he record 1.5 sacks. "They do run some of the same offense as last year so it'll help watching the film."

The biggest loss Illinois suffered in the offseason to its defense was Whitney Mercilus heading to the NFL. But other than the first-rounder's departure, the Illini bring back their other three top defensive linemen including Buchanan, senior tackle Glenn Foster and junior tackle Akeem Spence.

The speed and athleticism the Illinois defensive front bring to the table will make it paramount for the Sun Devil quarterbacks to get the ball out early, something the Illini know ASU likes to do anyways.

"They still run an up-tempo offense, we have to be ready for that," Buchanan said. "We have to get back to the line because they will snap it right away. I know they still want to get the ball to their athletes in space so we have to be ready for that too. It's a lot of quick stuff."

While last season Illinois just had to prepare for Osweiler, this time around the team will need to spell out game plans for both Kelly and Eubank. Even though it's more work, the Illini already know somewhat what to expect when Eubank comes into the game to replace Kelly.

"We know that when the second string quarterback comes in, they are more likely to run the ball," Buchanan said. "You just have to be aware who is in the game at times and what situation you are in. Both of them are very capable runners though."

The strength of the Illini's defense as a whole, which ranked second in the Big Ten last year in total yards allowed, has ASU coachTodd Graham concerned.

"Their defense is special," Graham said. "Their inside defensive tackles and their defensive ends are very special players. The key for our offense is going to be very, very simple: don't turn the football over, make sure that we play disciplined football, no stupid penalties and that we don't have mental errors that create negative plays."

What makes the matchup a little more unpredictable is that despite playing one another last season, both programs have new coaching staffs.

"We watched it a whole bunch looking at the personnel," Graham said. "I think [ASU playing Illinois last season] helps us evaluate their personnel but their defense is different, their offense is different. It's all new coordinators so from a schematic standpoint it didn't help us at all. From a personnel standpoint, studying their personnel, that is what we mostly used it for."

Illinois opened its season on Saturday, two days after the Sun Devils throttled Northern Arizona, by defeating Western Michigan, a stronger opponent, 24-7. But despite ASU facing weaker competition, the Illini still came away impressed by the Sun Devils' outburst of 63 points.

"They're a good football team, there's no question about it," Illinois first-year coach Tim Beckman said. "Anybody that can score that many points can be pretty darn good, regardless of whom you're playing."

While Illinois won its first game going away, the Illini lost its starting quarterback, Nathan Scheelhaase, midway through the contest with an ankle injury and didn't score another offensive touchdown the rest of the way.

Whether the junior plays on Saturday against ASU is still up in the air, but Scheelhaase did practice on Sunday, albeit limitedly.

"He was out there, definitely not full-go, but I know Nathan is going to do everything he can to be there on Saturday," Beckman said. "We're going to see how that thing progresses. I just got done seeing him. He's looking better and better, so he's at least smiling."

Even though he only threw for 135 yards, Scheelhaase torched the Sun Devils on the ground last year, leading the Illini in rushing with 80 yards.

If he is unable to go, Illinois will turn to sophomore Reilly O'Toole to play the quarterback position. At 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, O'Toole isn't as mobile as Scheelhaase but his team has confidence in him if he is needed.

The sophomore only completed two passes for seven yards in relief of Scheelhaase against Western Michigan on Saturday.

"Both of those two young men are going to be prepared this week to play in this football game," Beckman said of his quarterbacks. "So we'll see how they do and how they progress. But game planning and all that stuff, there will be very little change."

As far as traditional running backs go, Illinois used three in its first game, sophomore Donovonn Young, sophomore Jon Davis and freshman Josh Ferguson. The trio combined for 94 yards in the win.

Units aside, the most valuable player for the Illini last week was linebacker Ashante Williams, who, like ASU senior Brandon Magee, returned an interception 60 yards for a touchdown to seal the game in the fourth quarter.

"You knew as the head football coach and anyone involved in our football program, that he was going to have a good football game because of the way he prepared for it," Beckman said. "I think he even mentioned about the three hours of film study that he used to utilize his game prior to playing Western (Michigan). All of those things are crucial and very, very important for us to be successful. I see him getting better and better as his game progresses and I'm excited to see how he plays this week against Arizona State."


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