ASU vs. Illinois: Game Preview, Key Match-Ups, Prediction and More

ASU looks to avenge last season's defeat (Photo: ASU)

Arizona State (1-0, 0-0) vs. Illinois (1-0, 0-0)

Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. PST

Location: Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, AZ

Point Spread: ASU by 4

TV / Radio: ESPN / 92.3 FM

Weather Forecast: High 90s with 40% chance of thunderstorms

ASU Uniforms: All maroon

Key Injuries: ASU - S Laiu Moeakiola (out), DT Corey Adams (out), P Josh Hubner (questionable), LB Brandon Magee (probable). Illinois - QB Nathan Scheelhaase (questionable)

Series History: This is the fourth meeting all-time between ASU and Illinois. ASU leads 2-1. Illinois defeated ASU 17-14 in Week 3 last year by using their attacking defense to hold ASU to a season low in points.

The 2012 Illini: After dropping their final six regular season games following a 6-0 start, Illinois fired head coach Ron Zook and hired Toldeo's Tim Beckman. The team returns 15 starters, and has the potential to once again be a top 10 defense nationally after finishing seventh in 2011. The team will need to answer many questions on offense at running back and wide receiver, but if they can, they may be able to sneak into the Big Ten title game thanks to Ohio State's ineligibility.

Illinois Last Week: 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.

ASU on Offense: The Sun Devil offense had their way against NAU but will face a serious test on Saturday. Illinois was one of the nation's elite defenses in 2011 and will again be among the best. They run a very aggressive scheme that features both three and four-man fronts that will not make the second career start for ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly an easy one.

ASU's ground game was very successful last week despite starter Cameron Marshall totaling only 19 yards. Marion Grice shouldered the load with 107 yards and three touchdowns, and true freshman D.J. Foster added 99 yards from scrimmage and another score. The running this week will be much tough against the stout Illini front, so look for ASU to attack Illinois more along the edges with that trio of backs.

The Sun Devils passed for 249 yards but still have a number of questions about their pass catchers. Wide receiver Jamal Miles returns after his one-game suspension, but in his absence, true freshman Richard Smith posted a team-high five catches. Rashad Ross had a 50-yard catch and Kevin Ozier had two grabs for 29 yards in a quiet night for the group. They'll face an Illinois secondary that returns three starters. Cornerback tandem Terry Hawthorne and Justin Green are talented and won't make things easy, and are backed up by an athletic safety group led by Earnest Thomas. It will be essential that a few Sun Devil receivers find a way to contribute.

The biggest key in the entire game will be Arizona State's offensive line. They surrendered just one sack and paved the way for a ground game to amass 305 yards against NAU, but will have their hands full with the Illini onslaught. Illinois has two studs on the line in tackle Akeem Spence and end Michael Bucahanan, but the strength of the defense will be the Illini linebackers. Jonathan Brown earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors after last season's game against ASU, and is again one of the nation's best. However, hyperathletic Mike linebacker Houston Bates may be the unit's top threat. The line will see a lot of both in attack and will need to limit their damage.

  • ASU's interior OL vs DT Akeem Spence: The 6-foot-1, 305-pound Spence is one of the Big Ten's best defensive lineman and is capable of being a very disruptive force. The Sun Devil interior offensive line—center Kody Koebensky, left guard Jamil Douglas and right guard Andrew Sampson—will have their hands full in containing him. Spence was a big reason in Illinois holding WMU to -6 yards rushing.
  • LT Evan Finkenberg vs. DE Michael Buchanan: Buchanan was a one man wrecking crew against WMU, registering a sack, an interception and two tackles-for-loss. With Whitney Mercilus gone, Buchanan has the potential to fill his shoes as the Big Ten's elite pass rusher. Finkenberg will need to lock down the speedy 240-pounder and keep him off Kelly.
  • QB Taylor Kelly vs STAR Ashante Williams: Like ASU's "spur" position, Illinois uses a hybrid rover position. Williams registered a team-high nine tackles and scored a touchdown on an interception. Kelly, making just his second start, will need to account for Williams on every play and be aware of the creative ways in which the Illini uses the "star" all over the field.
  • 3-back Chris Coyle vs. SS Earnest Thomas: Coyle showed his potential with a team-high 65 yards on two catches and would have had a lot more had Kelly not overthrown him on two more wide open passes. The 6-foot-3 Coyle will battle the 6-foot-2 Thomas along the seams, and if Kelly can hone his aim, Coyle should be able to strike for some big gains.

ASU on Defense: Everything will depend on status of Scheelhaase. If he plays and is near 100%, he will present a big worry for the Sun Devil defense. In last year's win, he threw for 135 yards and a touchdown and ran for 67 more, and he's among the more talented dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation.

However, if he can't go or is limited, sophomore Reilly O'Toole will handle the quarterbacking. At 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, O'Toole is a traditional pocket passer and does not pose the running danger that Scheelhasse does. He saw action in 10 games last year, throwing for 270 yards. He took over for Scheelhaase after the latter was injured on Saturday, but the offense ground to a halt under his leadership. With O'Toole in the lineup, the defense will not need to gameplan for a running threat, and can focus on stopping the run and forcing the game on O'Toole.

Illinois has an interesting situation in the backfield. The two top backs—speedy Josh Ferguson and powerful Donovan Young—combined for just 40 yards on 22 carries last week. Tight end/H-back Jon Davis actually led the team with 54 yards on just six attempts. Davis is a dynamic player to whom the Illini staff wants to feed 10 to 12 touches, be in on carries or receptions.

The wide receiving corps has a lot of speed that will present challenges for ASU's secondary, but none of their options are proven. Ryan Lankford, Spencer Harris and Darious Millines can all fly, but still need to show they have the consistency to be a threat. ASU's secondary must not get drawn too close to the line against the run or they run the risk of being beaten deep.

  • DT Will Sutton and Jaxon Hood vs Interior Illinois OL: The middle of the Illini line is anchored by center Graham Pocic, one of the Big Ten's best lineman. At 6-foot-7, he's built like a tackle, but does a great job sealing the middle. On each side of Pocic are new starters, and ASU's interior defensive linemen, led by Sutton and Hood, would be wise to attack those gaps. If ASU can apply pressure up the middle, they should be able to significantly disrupt the Illinois offense, even more so if O'Toole is in the game
  • SPUR Chris Young vs. H-back Jon Davis: While Davis did not catch a pass from his H-back spot, he did lead the team in rushing. His versatility is reminiscent of ASU's Chris Coyle, and he'll be someone to watch in both the running and passing games. Young had a great debut on Thursday, leading the team in both tackles (eight) and tackle-for-loss (2.5). His skills figure to put him against Davis on a number of occasions.
  • DE Junior Onyeali vs RT Michael Heitz: The Illini defense is not the only one that attacks. Onyeali had 1.5 tackles-for-loss in the opener, and his speed and strength make him a formidable weapon. He'll face Heitz, a talented part-time starter from a year ago in a key battle that becomes more important if O'Toole is the quarterback. Onyeali can anchor a pass rush all by himself, and has the speed to catch up to a player like Scheelhaase. Heitz will need to keep Onyeali at bay, as the already struggling Illini offense can not afford many sacks or setbacks.
  • CB Deveron Carr vs. WR Spencer Harris: With A.J. Jenkins gone, there are no proven targets in the Illini passing game, but Harris may have the most potential. He does his best in the short passing game, but has the size (6-foot-3) to be a threat further downfield. Carr is ASU's most physically talented corner, and his size should pit him against Harris on a few occasions.

Special Teams: The quesitons about ASU kicker Alex Garoutte remain, as he did not try a field goal last week. He was, however, perfect on all nine of his extra point attempts. Punter Josh Hubner had a great game, averaging over 45 yards on his three kicks and pinning two inside the 20. However, he has been limited in practice with an injury, and the effect it will have remains to be seen. If he can't go, Dillon Jackson will handle the punting duties.

Without Jamal Miles, the ASU return game was unremarkable. Rashad Ross had only a seven yard kickoff return, and Robert Nelson averaged just 6.5 yards on his two punt returns. Expect that to be much better this week.

Illinois has a new kicker this year in Nick Immekus, who hit from 43 yards but missed from 45 in the opener. Punter Justin DuVernois has a nice leg and is skilled at dropping kicks inside the 20.

A year after posting the worst kick return game in the nation, Illinois has nowhere to go but up, and starting running back Josh Ferguson will get the first chance to do so.

ASU's To Do List:

  • Fend off the relentless Illinois defensive attack and keep Kelly upright.
  • Avoid turnovers.
  • Keep Scheelhaase in the pocket and force him to pass...
  • ...OR if O'Toole is playing, eliminate the run and force the Illini to pass.
  • Don't let the speedy Illini receivers get behind the secondary.

Prediction: ASU 20-17

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