The Fighting Illini are coming off their first winning season since 2001. Those down in Champaign-Urbana were amazed about how well the campaign went last year. They showed many vast improvements in offense as well as defense. As great as they played last year, it will be tough to repeat but very possible with this talented squad. Here is a look ahead at the 2008 Fighting Illini week by week. The first week of the College Football season is almost underway and this Saturday night game will be dandy.
Week 1: Illinois vs. Missouri (in St. Louis-Arch Rivalry)-7:30 PM ESPN
Keys on Offense:
Juice Williams and Chase Daniel, two of the best quarterbacks at throwing on the run will go at it on a nuetral field, Edwards Jones Dome. Chase Daniel is following up a huge Junior year in which he threw 33 touchdowns, with only 11 interceptions. Those stats lead to him becoming the Big 12 offensive player of the year. The young offensive line will hurt Daniel, especially missing his All-Big 12 center. All in all, Daniel will be able to overcome those line issues. These stats aren't very similar to Juice Williams who took a huge step last year in completion percentage. Williams ended the year with 13 touchdowns, with 10 interceptions.
The QB edge goes to the Missouri Tigers.
Running back wise, it could very well be a toss up. The lack of a "proven" running back will hurt Illinois with the loss of Mendenhall but Troy Pollard and Daniel Dufrene will be able to overcome most of those questions. Juice at the option helps imensley, and will take a lot of pressure off of those backs. Just as Illinois misses Mendenhall, Missouri misses Temple. The leading rusher back this season for the Tigers is a wide- receiver.
Illinois gets the edge in this category.
Finally, the receiving category. The Illini are full with young recievers with a lot of talent. Probably the most talented reciever in the nation is Sophomore, Arrelious Benn. Also, lining up beside him are Chris James, who was hurt all of last year and Chris Duvalt. The Tigers are loaded with recievers such as Benn's equal counterpart, Jeremy Maclin. Still the reason Missouri was able to hurt the Illini defense was with their dual-tight-end threat. The only returning TE from that combo is Chase Coffman. Yet, Chase Daniel can make any average receiver in this offense instantly good.
Overall, the edge goes to the Fighting Illini
Keys on Defense:
First off, the defensive line. The Fighting Illini come into this game with the possibly the best defensive line in the country. Lead by ferocious lineman, Will Davis and David Lindquist. The Tigers' defensive line is returning three starters who are improving. MU D-line coach Craig Kuligowski, is possibly one of the best in the country at developing good lineman so watch out.
The edge in this category goes to the Illini.
Next, the linebacking core. The Fighting Illini lost their All-Big Ten and All-American middle linebacker, J Leman. They replace him with Brit Miller who is a much faster and aggressive in my opinion. Linning up besides him are Martez Wilson, a freak of nature and Rodney Pitman. The Tigers' are lead by Sean Weatherspoon and Brock Christopher at the line-backing position, the pair match up with just about anyone in the Big 12 as well as most teams in the country. The edge goes to Missouri.
Finally, the secondary. The Illini are lead by Pre-Season All-American corner back, Vontae Davis who looks to have another huge season. The biggest issue will be with the safties, the Illini lost starters Justin Harrison and Kevin Mitchell. They will be replaced by young safties, Donsay Hardamen and Travon Bellamy. The Tigers secondary is very similar. They are anchored by All-American free safety William Moore, who missed all of spring drills recovering from shoulder surgery, but he’s expected to be healthy and back to his play making self in the fall. They are returning four starters as well which gives Missouri the advantage in the secondary.
Keys on Special Teams:
Both teams have very talented special teams especially their return men.Missouri's Jeremy Maclin and the Illini's Arrelious Benn are going to be exciting to watch both returning and receiving the ball on offense. These two guys could very well determine the outcome of this match up. There is still much debate about who will eventually become the Illini kicker, however, it seems as though highly touted prospect, Derek Dimke, will take over the reigns. He set a state playoff record last year with a 54-yard field goal. Experience for Missouri at the kicking position is a strength. Senior Jeff Wolfert is back after a good season, 21 out of 25 field goals made, with a total of 130 points.
The edge goes to Missouri.
The Illini's defensive line will put too much pressure on Chase Daniel. The Tigers' offensive line is too young to be able to shut down lineman such as Will Davis and David Lindquist. The Tigers secondary will play a huge role in whether or not Juice can effectively pass the ball and create with the run. In the end, I believe special teams will play a huge role in this game. It will go down as a classic, as both teams are very evenly matched. Look for the Illini to make up for last years mistake and steal one from the Tigers in St. Louis.
Final Score: 37-31 Illini