ASU Opponent First Look: Illinois Fighting Illini

Michael Buchanan applies pressure during Saturday's win over WMU (Mandatory Credit: Bradley Leeb-US PRESSWIRE)

The season opening dismantling of NAU was fine and dandy, but now it's time to turn our attention to the task at hand.

This Saturday, the Sun Devils will host the Illinois Fighting Illini to cap their two-year series, with ASU looking to exact some revenge. Last season, Illinois used their attacking defense to baffle Brock Osweiler and the ASU offense en route to handing the Sun Devils their first loss of the year.

Like the Sun Devils, the Illini collapsed down the stretch, dropping six straight after starting 6-0. That finish cost head coach Ron Zook his job, and he was replaced by Tim Beckman, who had led Toldeo on a strong three-season run.

We'll be bringing you great content throughout the week breaking down this big early season match-up between ASU and Illinois, but for now, let's get to know the Illini.

Illinois' Previous Game: Illinois opened their season on Saturday with a home game against Western Michigan. Dynamic dual-threat quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase hit Ryan Lankford for a 64-yard score early, and later ran for a second quarter touchdown in helping Illinois to a 17-0 halftime lead.

However, Scheelhaase was knocked out of the game with an ankle injury and the offense ground to a halt. The Illini defense stepped up, and Ashante Williams had a 60-yard interception return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter to seal the 24-7 win.

Offense: The major question surrounding the team this week will be the status of Scheelhaase's ankle. Even being a run-heavy offense, the Illini rely heavily on Scheelhaase for their offense to operate effectively. Sophomore Reilly O'Toole is the backup, and a more traditional pocket passer than Scheelhaase. While talented, he is still has a lot of development to do.

Schematically, the Illini primarily operate out of the shotgun, with one back, three receivers and a tight end in most formations.

The speedy and versatile Josh Ferguson and the bigger Donovan Young are the Illini's top running backs, but struggled against WMU, combining for just 40 yards on 22 carries. They'll get their touches against ASU, but will need to perform much better than they did against WMU. Both are threats in the passing game, and Young led the team with six catches on Saturday.

The leading rusher on the day was H-back Jon Davis with 54 yards. He is a versatile player much like ASU's Chris Coyle, and could create match-up problems in both the run and passing games.

The departure of of A.J. Jenkins took with it most of the receiving production from a year ago, and the team needs players to step up.

Lankford has great speed, as evidenced by his 64-yard score, but that was his only catch of the game. Spencer Harris has good size (6-foot-3) and speed, but had just 19 yards on his three catches. Darius Millines, the starter at the X receiver spot, is another to watch, although he had just a single catch for nine yards.

The offensive line is built around a stud at center—senior Graham Pocic—but has some questions elsewhere, especially on the right side. The had some success in not surrendering a sack, but did give up six tackles for loss and will be seeing a much more talented defense on the road.

Defense: The Illini run an aggressive defensive scheme that features both three and four-man fronts, and they have the front seven talent to wreak havoc like they did last year. Illinois thrives on pressure to disrupt opposing offenses into mistakes and turnovers, something they did well against WMU, forcing four turnovers while holding them to -6 yards rushing. Yes, negative yardage.

Even with the departure of sack master Whitney Mercilus, the defensive line is stout. Defensive tackle Akeem Spence is one of the Big Ten's best, and Michael Buchanan can be an effective pass rusher. Buchanan has a sack, an interception and two tackles for loss in the opener.

The strength of the unit is at linebacker, where the Illini are led by a name both familiar and painful for ASU fans: Jonathan Brown. In last season's meeting, Brown earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors after he tallied seven tackles, 3.5 tackles-for-loss, 1.5 sacks and one interception against the Sun Devils. He's on he Butkus Award watch list and could challenge for All-American honors. As good as Brown is, Houston Bates may be the unit's best athlete and a potential breakout star.

Illinois uses a "star" position, similar to ASU's "spur" spot, which is a blend of linebacker and safety. Ashante Williams inhabits this spot and paid dividends in the season opener with his pick six, as well as a team-high nine tackles.

The secondary returns three starters and while very talented, may be better than they seem thanks to how disruptive the front seven has been. Senior Terry Hawthorne will likely draw the top coverage assignments, and another senior, Justin Green, provided experience on the other side.

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