ASU and Illinois are both 1-0 but that is not all the two squads have in common. The Devils and Illini are each coming off disappointing seasons, have new coaches in charge, and possess unique offensive playmakers.
The Big Ten Conference plays a physical brand of football, and Illinois is no exception. Illinois may not be the prettiest team, yet are still very effective. The biggest strength for Illinois is their defense, which is ferocious, fast, has a stout D-line and much more.
However, Illinois' offense, featuring dual threat quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, also has potential to be dangerous. In 2011, Scheelhaase had 2,110 passing yards, 13 touchdowns, and eight interceptions and also accumulated 624 rushing yards and six scores. To the chagrin of Illinois, Scheelhaase movement may be limited due to an ankle injury suffered against Western Michigan in Week One.
This all leads up to ASU's search revenge, after losing in Illinois last year 17-14. Listed below are some keys to ensure the Devils ends up on the winning side of this matchup.
1) Keep Illinois Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase In The Pocket
Scheelhaase (Scheel-house) not school house, get it straight auto correct. In all seriousness, the junior quarterback is incredibly fast. ASU can attest to this, giving up 67 rushing yards last year to Scheelhaase.
Scheelhaase is two-dimensional, but clearly prefers running over passing, and rightfully so. Over Illinois' last six contests, Scheelhaase has not eclipsed the 200-yard marker in the air. This means that the Devils need to emphasize keeping him in the pocket, rather than letting the freakish athlete roam around.
At 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds, Scheelhaase a big boy. Therefore, once he hits open turf, it is basically a wrap. I recommend someone on ASU's defense spy him every play. This would cause Scheelhaase to beat the Devils with his arm and not his legs.
Obviously Scheelhaase is a capable passer, playing quarterback at a major conference. Sometimes people must pick their poison, and based on Scheelhaase's previous track record, it is evident that he is a better runner than passer.
The last significant statistical passing game Scheelhasse had was last November 8th against Indiana when he threw for 210 yards and three touchdowns. Scheelhaase career average for passing yards in a game is a pedestrian 150.4.
The Devils job of keeping Scheelhaase within their grasps will be easier due to his ankle injury. On Monday/Tuesday Scheelhaase was doubtful, and despite now being probable, the tweaked ankle is still limiting him.
Making Scheelhaase go through reads and make pin point throws will cause him great discomfort. I believe ASU wins if they keep Scheelhaase under 60 yards on the ground.
2) ASU Needs To Score Early And Often
There are countless reasons why ASU needs to jump out to an early lead. Lets start with the crowd; Sun Devil Stadium needs to be loud! In order to get the fans excited, ASU must score touchdowns soon after the whistle blows.
Home field advantage in football is crucial; take the USC game last year as an example. The drunk ASU students are obnoxious (trust me been there done that) and are capable of rattling opposing teams. Players waive their arms in the air for a reason, because getting everyone excited truly helps.
When everyone is yelling, Illinois will have trouble receiving signals creating confusion, giving ASU an advantage pre-snap. Correct me if I am wrong, but most age-appropriate males reading this article want to be on ASU's football team. Since that dream failed us all, going nuts Saturday is the biggest way YOU can impact the game.
Beyond the noise level, starting off up 7-0, 10-0 etc. puts Illinois in a major predicament. The Illini loves to run the football, but large deficits force them to throw. Anytime a team can take away another squads primary option, good things are in store.
Illinois quarterbacks (Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole) attempted a mere 21 passes against Western Michigan last week. The Illinois offense was far from balanced, running 38 times and attempting 21 passes, almost a 2 to 1 ratio runs to pass.
Jumping out to a lead wont be easy, the Devils can win without accomplishing this task. Although, establishing firm control early on will put ASU in prime position to come up victorious.
3) Protect ASU Quarterback Taylor Kelly
Illinois front four is beastly, lead by disruptive senior defensive end Michael Buchanan. Buchanan's 7.5 sacks are the most of any returning player, providing excellent veteran leadership.
Quarterbacks often make poor choices when going against the Illini defense. Taylor Kelly rarely turns the ball over, but when there are multiple 300-pound behemoths in his face, the outcome cannot be predicted.
The Illinois secondary is average, but the men in front disguise that weakness.
Western Michigan's quarterback Alex Carder actually moved the ball pretty well against Illinois. On the day Carder had a respectable 239 yards, but pressure up the gut lead to three interceptions.
So here is my point. If Kelly is provided time to throw, like most quarterbacks, he will be successful. The Devils offensive line looked sharp in their debut, only allowing one sack in the contest. The effort was nice, but NAU is essentially Triple-A while the Illini are legitimate major leaguers.
ASU star o-lineman Andrew Sampson must get his troops ready for consistent pressure and blitzing. If Kelly has time to go about his progressions, the Sun Devil faithful will leave happy. If Kelly does not get time, his job let alone head will be on the chopping block, and will fail to "own the ball" as Coach Graham demands.
Prediction Time: 24-20 ASU Over Illinois