Big Ten: Brock Osweiler

Big Ten mailblog

February, 14, 2012
2/14/12
3:30
PM ET
What's on your mind on this Valentine's Day?

Eric from Flagstaff, Ariz., writes: My friend and I are die hard fans of Michigan teams, he a Michigan fan and I an MSU fan. He belittles Sparty every chance he gets. We were having a debate about where the teams would finish next season. He said Michigan is a lock for the Rose Bowl and MSU won't get any higher than the Insight Bowl. I said MSU would make the Rose Bowl and Michigan would make the Capital One Bowl. Can you blame me? MSU won't win every game and I realize that, but they have OSU, Neb and ND at home where Michigan has to travel to all of those. Plus they have Alabama too. Sure, Michigan State will be starting a new QB, but Maxwell has been on the team for 3 years now. He's ready to start, plus with the receiving corps coming in, and not to mention the best defense in the B1G, its hard for me to see how Michigan is in a better spot. Michigan might be an improved team with a worse record. OSU and Nebraska on the road will kill their chances in the B1G next season me thinks. Who's MORE CORRECT?

Adam Rittenberg: Eric, love the debate. I get that fans are fans, but no team is a "lock" for the Rose Bowl. Especially a team that opens against Alabama and plays Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State on the road. Both Michigan schools have some holes to fill, but I like Michigan State's potential because of the defense that returns. The Spartans are building something special on the defensive side and loading up on athletes rather than just big bodies. I could honestly see both of these teams being better teams with worse records than 2011. While I think MSU ends up in a better bowl than Insight, both teams have some question marks but also plenty of talent. I could easily see the Big Ten title coming down to the Spartans-Wolverines game at the Big House.


Lance S. from Greensboro, N.C., writes: Adam, you keep saying that you don't see the need for automatic bids for the top conferences in a playoff system. So are you saying you'd rather see a playoff between 3 SEC teams and a Big 12 team, than one involving the SEC, Big 12, B1G, and Pac 12 champions? I don't think anyone wants automatic bids for the Sun Belt or MAC champs, but to not give the big 4 champs (or the 6 BCS conferences if there's an 8 team playoff) just punishes the deeper, more balanced conferences. I could easily see a situation where a 2 loss B1G champ, e.g., is every bit as good as a 1 loss team from, say, the SEC East, but they'd undoubtedly get left out from any playoff based solely on BCS standings. By giving automatic bids to the champions from the power conferences, you take out the human element (and more importantly, the computer element) from the selection process. Reward teams that proved it on the field!

Adam Rittenberg: Lance, I'd like to see the best four or eight teams in a playoff field. If it's a four-team field, you're not going to get league champions from every major conference. I'm fine with a selection committee that can identify the best teams through certain criteria. If it's an eight-team field, I'm more open to auto bids for league champions, although it would be nice to set up a system where leagues have to earn the right to retain auto bids. Not sure if this would be done through performance in a playoff or some other measure, but I don't need to see the ACC champion lose in the first round every year. We already get that in the BCS bowls.


Mark from Wooster, Ohio, writes: Adam usually enjoy your comments. A couple of things struck me as wrong tonight. Here is my 2nd concern.You write "If Ohio State wants to make a national championship run in 2013, its non-league schedule shouldn't stand in its way. "Seems tome just the opposite I red a lot about how strength of schedule is important to get to top of the BCS.Is it your position today that if Ohio goes undefeated in 2013 and win the conference play off that they are a shoe in to go to the national championship game?I would think having a lame nonconfrence schedule could do exactly the opposite of what you claim ( get in the way) . That a weak non-league schedule could keep it from the National championship. Seems to me like sometimes you guys take both sides of an argument depending on the day or the phase of the moon or something? Is a strong schedule a help or a hindrance in getting to the top? If strength of schedule is important why do you state that OSU's 2013 schedule won't stand in the way?

Adam Rittenberg: Mark, it's not about taking both sides of the argument. The answer ultimately depends on the circumstances of a given season. But in most seasons, there's one very simple way for teams not from the SEC to reach the title game: go undefeated. While it's possible an undefeated Big Ten team could be left out, history shows it's highly unlikely. A softer non-league schedule increases the chance Ohio State goes undefeated.

The strength of schedule argument likely would only make a difference if we're comparing 1-loss teams. The Big Ten likely would have a decent overall SOS, and besides, there are so few undefeated teams every year that it's hard to believe a 13-0 Ohio State team wouldn't reach the title game. This isn't college basketball, and while I'd love to see teams challenge themselves more, teams from leagues like the Big Ten rarely if ever pay the price for softer non-league scheduling. Ask Oregon how playing LSU in the opener worked out in its quest to return to the national title game this past season. Granted, the Ducks lost another game to USC, but had Oregon played a patsy instead of LSU in Week 1, it would have entered the USC game with a great chance to reach the title game.


Jon from Ithaca, N.Y., writes: How come Kirk Cousins doesn't seem to be getting the same draft hype as Ryan Tannehill, Nick Foles, and even Brock Osweiler? Cousins had a strong season behind a shaky offensive line in a pro-style offense. He was sensational in the final minutes of the Georgia game, but seems to be flying under the radar, much like Ricky Stanzi did last year... Where do you think we can expect Cousins to be drafted?

Adam Rittenberg: Jon, this is an interesting question. The other quarterbacks are rated higher than Cousins primarily because of their size. Tannehill is 6-4, 222; Foles is 6-5, 240; and Osweiler is 6-8, 240. Cousins always has struggled to put on weight -- I wish I had that problem! -- and checks in around 205 pounds. There are durability concerns with Cousins that aren't there as much with guys like Tannehill, Osweiler and Foles, who also has an absolute cannon for an arm. Tannehill should be the first quarterback of the group to be drafted, probably in the second round. I've seen some projections list Cousins ahead of the other two and others that have him behind both Osweiler and Foles. Colleague Mel Kiper recently listed Osweiler as the best of the bunch, followed by Tannehill and Foles, although he said Cousins could make a move up the board. It looks like Cousins will go between the third and fifth rounds in April.


Matt from Midway, N.C., writes: Adam, I remember reading once that the Ohio State scholorship reductions could be spread out any way OSU wants over the next three years. Is there any truth to this because that would be great?!

Adam Rittenberg: Nope, sorry, Matt. The NCAA enforces the scholarship limit and Ohio State will have 82 scholies in each of the next three seasons.


Isaac from Stevens Point, Wis., writes: what do you think the chances are that Wisconsin opens up their playbook a little on offense this year? They just got Matt Canada who I'm pretty sure ran a spread at Northern Illinois with Harnish. They also have a pretty special group of skill guys coming back this year. And when i say special i mean different. They have three tight ends that need to be on the field, weak in WR depth, no legitimate fullback. They also have Moneyball and the ultra talented/ underutilized James White. The QB decision will obviously have a lot to do with what happens and who knows who that will be. Wisconsin has always been known as the hardnosed, pound it down your throat until it bleeds team but they did drop Wilson into shotgun this year, so its not like theyre refusing to change

Adam Rittenberg: Isaac, you bring up some interesting points. Canada has a more varied background, and while Bret Bielema hired him to keep Wisconsin's offensive structure in place, every new coordinator brings some new wrinkles to the playbook. Keep in mind the Badgers lose a tremendous athlete in Russell Wilson at quarterback, and the QB position is a major question mark right now. I completely agree Wisconsin is much stronger at tight end than at wide receiver, and Jacob Pedersen and those guys need to have big roles in Canada's offense. Montee Ball's return is huge, but Wisconsin has some question marks at quarterback, receiver, fullback and even offensive line after losing three starters. It'll be important for Canada to mix things up and not just rely on Wisconsin always has done.


Brent from State College, Pa., writes: Adam, your article on OSU's "Percy position" made me wonder: with a new coaching staff and defensive coordinator now at Penn State, will the defensive "hero (heroback) position" be relegated to the annals of history? Wasn't that moniker/position a brainchild of Coach Bradley?

Adam Rittenberg: Brent, the "hero" position actually stems from former Penn State coach Rip Engle. I wrote about it back in 2010:
The Hall of Fame coach who preceded Joe Paterno in Happy Valley didn't like the term commonly used to describe a strong safety: monster. So Engle came up with his own title.
"Rip thought that the word monster was derogatory," Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley said, "so he decided to call the position hero, and we still call it that. We have a linebacker position called the Fritz linebacker. It's named after Fritz the pizza man, who used to get the team pizzas."

I haven't heard whether the new Penn State staff will keep the "hero" position or not, but it's definitely part of Penn State tradition. Drew Astorino, who played "hero" for part of his career, described it to me as a safety-linebacker hybrid who is always around the ball. New Penn State defensive coordinator Ted Roof used a nickel back spot quite a bit during his time at Auburn. I'll definitely check on whether he'll keep the "hero" spot.


Al from Port St. Lucie, Fla., writes: Your poll about the most disliked coach is stupid. Urban has not coached one game and is the most hated? He is probably the most feared coach — the vote shows envy and that is it.

Adam Rittenberg: Your last sentence could be right, and I definitely think the more disliked coaches in a league are the more successful ones. But why is the poll stupid? I think it's telling that Meyer is so disliked — or feared — without having coached a single game in the Big Ten. We've received more than 20,000 votes in less than a day, so a lot of folks don't think it's stupid.
Last Sunday, Illinois defensive coordinator Vic Koenning and his staff brainstormed a unique game plan for a dangerous opponent.

They mixed up fronts, disguised blitzes, constantly moved players around and let creativity trump conservatism in mapping out ways to pressure Arizona State quarterback Brock Osweiler. With the blueprint finalized, the coaches prepared to head home.

"We kind of looked at each other and said, 'This is crazy,'" Koenning said.

The plan placed a burden on Illinois' defensive front seven, a group many outsiders questioned heading into the season, and for good reason.

Illinois had to replace three players selected in April's NFL draft: defensive tackle Corey Liuget, a first-round pick; linebacker Martez Wilson, a third-round pick; and linebacker Nate Bussey, a seventh-round pick. Both Liuget and Wilson opted to forgo their final year of eligibility, seemingly leaving the Illini in a bit of a pinch.

[+] EnlargeJonathan Brown
Damen Jackson/Icon SMIJonathan Brown's performance against Arizona State earned him player of the week honors.
But what the Illini defense lost in star power, it gained in a group with greater knowledge of the system. And, in the process, new stars are being born.

"They were great players, they brought a lot to the team," senior linebacker Ian Thomas said of Liuget, Wilson and Bussey, "but this year, we feel like we're a little more comfortable with the defense. We've got the defense down a little more, so it makes up for those guys that we lost."

The Illini made Koenning's crazy plan look genius Saturday night in a 17-14 win against Arizona State, which came to Champaign averaging 42.5 points and 504.5 offensive yards.

Illinois recorded six sacks, all by the front seven, and 12 tackles for loss.

Sophomore linebacker Jonathan Brown had a breakout performance with an interception, 3.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks, earning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors. Others stood out like end Whitney Mercilus (5 tackles, 2 sacks, forced fumble), bandit Michael Buchanan (1.5 sacks) and tackle Glenn Foster (interception, 1 tackle for loss).

Although Illinois starts only two seniors in the front seven -- Thomas and Trulon Henry, who moved from safety to linebacker to address depth there -- the group is displaying greater maturity in Year 2 under Koenning.

"We're a lot further along than we were last year," defensive line coach Keith Gilmore said, "just knowing the little nuances of the defense. Heck, I was still learning as well. I think I'm a better coach and a better teacher at this point in knowing the scheme, and know the kids are better players because of it."

Gilmore admits the coaches were "a little uptight" when first implementing the Arizona State game plan. But by the middle of the practice week, it began to click with the players.

Could Illinois have executed the same type of plan last year?

"We were still learning a lot of the base stuff," Gilmore said. "We came up with some different plans as well last year, but being a year into it, it's easier to make sideline adjustments and game adjustments as you go along because the kids have a better feel for the defense."

Brown was all over the field Saturday night, factoring into two of Illinois' three takeaways. He hit Osweiler on a blitz, forcing a throw that caromed off of an Arizona State lineman to Foster for an interception.

In the third quarter, he recorded a pick of his own following a deflected pass.

"We showed what we've been thinking all summer," Brown said, "that we can play with anybody in the country, and that we have the best defense in the country. Coming into the season, they had us ranked dead last as a linebacker corps. One of our goals was to go out and prove people wrong."

Although Illinois lost two linebackers to the NFL, its biggest concern was replacing Liuget, the Big Ten's most dominant interior lineman in 2011. The defensive line's performance against Arizona State bodes well for Big Ten play.

"We talk about 'next man in' all the time, whether it be to an injury or graduation or an NFL departure," Gilmore said. "They all have talent. It's a matter of who gets an opportunity to showcase that talent."

Thomas, the graybeard of the defense, is seeing his teammates grasp the opportunities presented to them.

"I'm real confident in those guys," he said. "I know I can depend on them to be where they need to be."

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Illinois coach Ron Zook has often talked about how his program experienced too much success too soon.

After winning just eight games between 2003-06, Illinois fast-tracked to the Rose Bowl in Zook's third season, finding itself as a surprise participant on college football's grandest stage. Rather than take a step, Illinois skipped about 40.

The Illini tumbled that day against USC and entered a two-year free fall.

No one would describe the 2010 Texas Bowl -- now called the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas -- as an iconic college football setting. It takes place in an NFL venue -- Houston's Reliant Stadium -- and was revived only in 2006.

But for Illinois, the Texas Bowl represented a step, a building block for what players and coaches hopes were bigger things ahead. It didn't hurt that the Illini crushed Baylor 38-14.

"A lot of guys hadn't been to a bowl game," sophomore linebacker Jonathan Brown said. "It was kind of good to taste success, but it made us more hungry."

The hunger carried Illinois through the offseason, and the team has been able to retain something it lost following the 2002 Sugar Bowl and the 2008 Rose Bowl.

Momentum.

[+] EnlargeBrock Osweiler
AP Photo/Seth PerlmanThe Illinois defense pressured Arizona State's Brock Osweiler all night -- amassing six sacks and four quarterback hurries.
Illinois announced itself as a team to watch Saturday night against No. 22 Arizona State, rallying behind a ferocious defense for a 17-14 win. The Illini are 3-0 for the first time since 2001 -- the last year they won a Big Ten championship -- and recorded their first win against a ranked opponent since stunning No. 1 Ohio State in 2007.

For their efforts, the Illini, projected by many to finish at the bottom of the Big Ten, likely will earn a spot in the new polls released Sunday.

"We're taking some steps," Zook said. "We're continuing to get where we're supposed to get. ... It makes everybody understand that, 'Hey, maybe Illinois is a bit better than what people think.'"

Illinois and Arizona State both finished the 2010 regular season with identical 6-6 records. While the Illini went bowling, Arizona State stayed home because two of its victories came against FCS opponents.

Still, the Sun Devils entered this season as a team to watch, a belief strengthened by their overtime win last week against Missouri. Arizona State didn't have the letdown coach Dennis Erickson feared, but the Sun Devils couldn't overcome the mistakes (eight penalties, three turnovers) that have plagued them far too often.

Given another chance to turn the corner, Arizona State lost its footing.

"This is gut-wrenching, to be honest with you," receiver Gerell Robinson said. "Everyone is sitting in disbelief that it happened the way it did."

It happened because Illinois' defense executed an innovative, pressuring, "crazy" game plan devised by coordinator Vic Koenning. Illinois mixed up fronts, blitzed often and repeatedly made plays in Arizona State's offensive backfield.

The Illini racked up six sacks, 12 tackles for loss and four quarterback pressures. Two of their three takeaways came as a direct result of pressure on Sun Devils quarterback Brock Osweiler, who entered the game ranked 10th nationally in passer rating and 11th in total offense.

"We sat up here Sunday night, put the game plan together, kind of looked at each other and said, 'This is crazy,'" Koenning said. "But it all worked."

Brown had a breakout performance with 3.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and an interception. Defensive ends Whitney Mercilus and Michael Buchanan combined for 3.5 sacks and a forced fumble.

"They brought a lot of pressure tonight," Osweiler said. "Shoot, it seemed like almost every snap."

What was pegged as an offensive shootout turned into a defensive tussle, and for much of the game, neither team seemed willing to take control. The teams combined for five turnovers in the first three quarters but converted none for points.

Illinois finally ended the trend when, trailing 14-10 in the fourth quarter, Mercilus sacked Osweiler, forcing a fumble. An Illini offense that hadn't recorded a first down in the second half then marched to the end zone in only four plays.

"You've got to capitalize," Zook said. "You've got to make something happen when you get the ball back."

Arizona State couldn't do so nearly enough. The Devils had eight possessions end in Illinois territory, but only two culminated in points.

"Very disappointing," Erickson said. "It's two steps forward and one step back."

Who knows how a bowl appearance in the winter would have impacted Arizona State for the 2010 season. But there's little doubt about the positive effect it had on the Illini.

"It changed the culture," Buchanan said. "It changed how guys think about playing on the big stage. ... We got a taste of being on top."

Illinois sits atop the Big Ten as one of just four remaining undefeated teams. The league looks extremely vulnerable, and Illinois has three of the next four games at home with the only road trip to Indiana.

Leaders division foes Wisconsin and Ohio State both must visit Memorial Stadium later this fall.

"We're not shooting for the Texas Bowl," Buchanan said. "We're shooting for a big bowl."
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- It's fitting that Illinois' defense had to seal a statement win for the program.

Vic Koenning's unit performed masterfully most of the game, making play after to play to keep Arizona State out of the end zone. After struggling on third-and-long much of the night, the Illini forced four consecutive incomplete passes to cement a 17-14 win.

Illinois received a tremendous performance from its defensive front seven, particularly Whitney Mercilus and Jonathan Brown, and Koenning continued to dial up blitzes that worked. The offense struggled in the second half but got some nice running late from Jason Ford and Nathan Scheelhaase.

Despite a strong defensive effort, Arizona State still has trouble turning the corner and likely will fall out of the polls this week. Too many turnovers and penalties for the Sun Devils tonight.

Illinois, meanwhile, has announced itself as a contender in a very vulnerable Big Ten.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- After neither team turned five combined takeaways into points, Illinois finally made Arizona State pay.

The Fighting Illini offense rewarded its defense for a night of huge plays as Nathan Scheelhaase found A.J. Jenkins for a 16-yard touchdown on a crossing route. Defensive end Whitney Mercilus, who is having a terrific night rushing the passer, set up the score by leveling Brock Osweiler and forcing a fumble that Ian Thomas recovered.

Illinois' defense certainly has played well enough to win this game, forcing three Osweiler turnovers. From Mercilus to Jonathan Brown to Michael Buchanan, Illinois has had a ton of contributions.

The Illini lead 17-14 with about 10 minutes to play.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- There's so much attention on Brock Osweiler's height that folks forget the 6-foot-8 quarterback can move a bit.

Arizona State capitalized on favorable field position and Osweiler gave the Sun Devils their first lead with a 14-yard run on a designed quarterback draw. Illinois had been very solid against the run for most of the night, but Arizona State made a great call on the Osweiler run.

The bigger concern for Illinois is an offense that managed no first downs and 13 total yards in the first quarter. Arizona State has totally shut down Nathan Scheelhaase, as Vontaze Burfict and crew are stepping up their play.

Arizona State leads 14-10 early in the fourth quarter.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- What can Brown do for you?

In Illinois' case, linebacker Jonathan Brown is doing it all in a huge performance against Arizona State. Brown has played a role in both Illini takeaways, causing the first one with his hit on Sun Devils QB Brock Osweiler and corralling an Osweiler pass for an interception to stop a lengthy drive.

The sophomore also has played a big role in Illinois' aggressive blitzing packages. He has been in Osweiler's face multiple times tonight.

Still, Illinois must find a better way to get off of the field as Arizona State continues to convert third-and-long situations.

We're in a defensive struggle here. Who would have seen that coming?

Illinois still leads 10-7 midway through the third quarter.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- We've reached halftime here at Memorial Stadium, and what looked like an offensive shootout has slowed down significantly.

Illinois leads 10-7.

Stat of the half: The teams have combined to convert 9 of 16 third-down attempts, but they've also combined for three turnovers, none of which turned into points.

Best player in the half: Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. Other than a very ill-advised throw into triple coverage, Scheelhaase has sliced up Arizona State's defense. He completed 8 of 11 passes for 104 yards and added 62 rushing yards on 10 carries. Two receivers also have stood out: Illinois' A.J. Jenkins (4 catches, 79 yards) and Arizona State's Aaron Pflugrad (4 catches, 55 yards).

What Illinois needs to do: Stop committing turnovers and start finishing drives. Illinois should have more points against an Arizona State defense that clearly has some flaws. The Illini also need to figure out ways to cover up their problems at the safety position or Brock Osweiler will make more plays in the second half.

What Arizona State needs to do: Pick up blitzes better and allow Osweiler to attack Illinois in the deep middle. The Sun Devils also need to show better discipline after being penalized five times for 55 yards. The defense must keep an eye on Scheelhaase, who has found gaps.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Illinois might not be able to contain Arizona State's vertical passing attack, but the Illini are getting to quarterback Brock Osweiler.

Coordinator Vic Koenning has turned up the heat, and the blitzes are reaching their target. Illinois recorded an interception off of a deflection after linebacker Jonathan Brown nailed Osweiler on a blitz, and the Illini stopped another Sun Devils' march with a third-down blitz by Houston Bates and Michael Buchanan.

I'm guessing Illinois will get burned at some point with the blitzes, but given the issues in the secondary, this strategy seems to be the best route.

Illinois' offense, meanwhile, has looked very good aside from two giveaways, including an ill-advised throw by Nathan Scheelhaase. It marked his first interception of the season.

Illinois leads 10-7 early in the second quarter.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Not surprisingly, we could be headed for a shootout at Memorial Stadium.

After Illinois forced a three-and-out on the game's first possession, both offenses have looked crisp on touchdown drives. Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase showcased his speed on a short scoring march, while his Arizona State counterpart Brock Osweiler found huge gaps in the Illinois secondary to even the score at 7-7.

The safety position is a liability for Illinois, and it showed as Osweiler converted two third-and-long situations to wide-open receivers, the second a 21-yard touchdown strike to Gerell Robinson. Illinois needs to keep a safety back or Osweiler will have a field day.

Arizona State, meanwhile, must show it can handle Illinois' speed on offense.

Arizona State-Illinois pregame

September, 17, 2011
9/17/11
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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Brock Osweiler really is that big.

That's my prevailing thought after watching the Arizona State quarterback warm up. The 6-foot-8 Osweiler should have no trouble seeing over the Illinois defense tonight. I'm also impressed with several of the Sun Devils receivers. It'll be a challenge for the Illini secondary.

Illinois running back Jason Ford stood out to me during warmups. He looks like he's gained a step or two, and he's always had the size to run with power.

The weather is still gorgeous, so let's get this thing going. Should be a good one.

It's game day in Champaign

September, 17, 2011
9/17/11
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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Greetings from Illinois' Memorial Stadium, where tonight No. 22 Arizona State and Illinois will meet for the right to start 3-0 and earn a bit more national respect.

It's a beautiful day in central Illinois, and while I've been in the press box for a very long time, it looks like a fun scene around the stadium. Weather should be very comfortable tonight.

Arizona State and Illinois boast identical records and similar profiles as programs that always seem to have the talent to turn a corner but, for various reasons, struggle to do so. These are the types of showcase games both programs tend to lose, but one team will walk out of here feeling very good about itself.

Illinois is looking for its first win against a ranked opponent since 2007, when it knocked off top-ranked Ohio State in Columbus en route to a Rose Bowl appearance.

This is a matchup I circled before the season as a potential swing game for Illinois. The Illini beat up on Arkansas State and South Dakota State, but they'll be tested much more by a talent-stocked Arizona State team.

Quarterbacks Brock Osweiler (Arizona State) and Nathan Scheelhaase (Illinois) both come in with a lot of confidence, and they have solid weapons around them. Both offenses can put up a ton of points, and this game could come down to which defense makes momentum-turning plays in the fourth quarter.

I'm extremely excited to see Sun Devils linebacker Vontaze Burfict in the flesh, and also how Illinois is replacing three NFL draft picks on the defensive side.

Keep it right here for coverage of Arizona State-Illinois throughout the night.
Here's a buy-or-sell proposition for you.

Team X won its bowl game convincingly in December, capping a season that surprised many so-called experts. Team X boasts an exciting young dual-threat quarterback who has complemented his athleticism with better passing. Team X typically ranks among the nation's top-20 teams in rushing, returns a veteran line and a nice backfield mix. Despite losing three defenders to the NFL draft, Team X has several seasoned defensive backs and linebackers. Team X has won its first two games by a combined score of 89-18. Team X plays eight home games, including each of the first five and six of the first seven.

So, are you buying or selling?

Oh, you want to know the team's name? The head coach's name, too?

OK, understood. Let me know if you change your mind.

This is the perception the Illinois Fighting Illini and their coach Ron Zook are up against as they try to regain a place on the national college football radar. For every reason to buy into Illinois, there are other reasons to stay away from the Orange and Blue.

[+] EnlargeA.J. Jenkins
AP Photo/Seth PerlmanA.J. Jenkins knows Saturday night's game gives Illinois the chance to show the country what kind of team it is.
Illinois has been the ultimate tease in the Big Ten, twice reaching BCS bowls in the past decade, only to backslide. Zook has teased us with talent, bringing elite recruits to Champaign but not getting consistent results (30-45 in six-plus seasons).

While Illinois has the look of a team to watch in the Big Ten, there's a hesitancy from the outside to buy in, and players know it.

Check out receiver A.J. Jenkins' response to a seemingly neutral question: How big of an opportunity is Saturday night's game with No. 22 Arizona State?

"It's a really big opportunity for us," Jenkins said. "Both undefeated teams, playing a night game in prime time. It's going to be a good thing because we'll finally have the respect we deserve.

"We believe we can be a ranked, Top-25 team. This is the time for us to show the world that doesn't believe, that we're capable."

The Arizona State game comes at a perfect time for Illinois.

The Sun Devils come in ranked in both major polls (No. 22 AP; No. 18 coaches). They put themselves on the national radar with a dramatic overtime victory last Friday against Missouri. They boast one of the nation's most recognizable defenders in linebacker Vontaze Burfict and one of the nation's most recognizable quarterbacks in the 6-foot-8 Brock Osweiler.

Arizona State will be the main attraction nationally Saturday night, but if Illinois wins, attention will come its way. Maybe even respect.

"Our guys understand if we're going to be involved in the Big Ten [race], have something to do with that, this is a game where we're going to have to show up and play the way we're capable of playing," Zook said. "I don't think there's any question these guys are fired up about it."

The game pits an explosive Illinois offense against an Arizona State defense that ranked 16th nationally against the run in 2010. Illinois set a team scoring record last fall (423 points) and leads the Big Ten in scoring, total yards and rushing yards through the first two weeks.

Sophomore quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is off to a quick start, but Burfict, whose reputation for administering ferocious hits and drawing personal fouls is well known, will be gunning for No. 2.

"The emotional part is the thing that really stands out with Vontaze," Zook said. "He's going to make sure you know he's around."

Osweiler also is tough to miss, and not just because of his unusual size. The junior was brilliant against Missouri, completing 24 of 32 passes for 353 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions.

Illinois needs its veteran linebackers and defensive backs like Ian Thomas, Trulon Henry, Tavon Wilson and Terry Hawthorne to step up.

"You can't get in his line of sight," Illini defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said of Osweiler. "They run the big split stuff where they get him throwing lanes. He's a big ol' quarterback and he's not unathletic. We're just going to do the best we can.

"This will be a fantastic challenge for us."

Illinois hasn't beaten a ranked opponent since stunning then-No. 1 Ohio State in Columbus in 2007. The victory spurred the Illini to the Rose Bowl.

Although beating Arizona State wouldn't make the same impact, it could springboard the Illini to bigger things when Big Ten play begins.

"For people who don't believe we can beat teams that are ranked, it's time to come out and see what we can do," Jenkins said. "This game might spark our season.

"I wouldn't say it's a must-win, but if we want the respect that we deserve, this is a win we need."

Big Ten predictions: Week 3

September, 15, 2011
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Before we get to pad our stats (hopefully) in Week 4, it's time to forecast an intriguing slate of Week 3 games.

Thus far, neither of us has had anything resembling perfection. Will it change this week?

Let's get to the picking ...

EASTERN MICHIGAN at MICHIGAN

Brian Bennett: Michigan's biggest problem will be adjusting to the weirdness of playing during the day. Other than that, former Wolverines defensive coordinator Ron English's team has no answer for Denard Robinson. ... Michigan 42, Eastern Michigan 10

Adam Rittenberg: I see the Wolverines starting off a bit slowly against the 2-0 Eagles, but Robinson and the running backs will get going in this one and coordinator Al Borges can stick to his system more. Don't see Brady Hoke running up the score on English and Mike Hart. ... Michigan 36, Eastern Michigan 14

PENN STATE at TEMPLE

Adam Rittenberg: Penn State's ongoing indecision at quarterback concerns me, especially against a Temple defense playing well. Like last year's game, this contest will be low scoring but Silas Redd and Brandon Beachum come up big in the second half with touchdowns. ... Penn State 23, Temple 16

Brian Bennett: I agree Temple will keep it close behind the running of Bernard Pierce at home. Penn State does just enough to win on a late TD pass to Derek Moye -- just don't ask me who throws it. ... Penn State 21, Temple 17

PITTSBURGH at IOWA

Brian Bennett: I covered Pitt closely the past three seasons and have no confidence in the Panthers to win a tough road game, especially the way quarterback Tino Sunseri has played. Iowa's defense rebounds after a rough day in Ames and grounds the High Octane. ... Iowa 28, Pitt 19

Adam Rittenberg: No love for the Big East? I hereby revoke your Primanti Bros. privileges. Pitt takes an early lead against a reeling Hawkeyes defense, but Iowa rallies in the second half behind running back Marcus Coker (last chance, Marcus). ... Iowa 27, Pitt 20

SOUTHEAST MISSOURI STATE at PURDUE

Adam Rittenberg: The heat is rising on coach Danny Hope, but Purdue should get through the fourth quarter without tension for the first time this year. Both Caleb TerBush and Robert Marve play at quarterback, but Purdue's run game makes the big difference in this one. ... Purdue 34, SE Missouri State 17

Brian Bennett: Just what Purdue needs after two shaky performances: a highly beatable FCS team. No field goal blocks needed this time. ... Purdue 35, SE Missouri State 10

SOUTH CAROLINA STATE at INDIANA

Brian Bennett: And just what Indiana needs, too. Finally a big offensive performance for Kevin Wilson's club against an overmatched FCS squad. ... Indiana 41, SCSU 17

Adam Rittenberg: Wilson can be as reckless as he wants to with big decisions and still get his first win as IU's coach. Matt Perez and the Hoosiers' run game show some signs of life for the first time this season. ... Indiana 30, SCSU 17

NO. 15 MICHIGAN STATE at NOTRE DAME

Adam Rittenberg: Las Vegas isn't giving Michigan State any respect, and the Notre-Dame-is-actually-good-honest-to-God rhetoric is getting tiresome. The Spartans typically play well in South Bend and win another close one against a desperate Irish team that doesn't know how to close. ... Michigan State 27, Notre Dame 24

Brian Bennett: How can anyone pick Notre Dame at this point? I wouldn't pick the Irish in an intrasquad scrimmage. The Spartans get a big step up in competition, but Kirk Cousins leads them to the first of what they hope are many road wins. ... Michigan State 31, Notre Dame 28

MIAMI (OHIO) at MINNESOTA

Brian Bennett: A tough game to predict, not knowing how the players will respond to the Jerry Kill situation. I'm thinking Kill returns to the sidelines and they play inspired to give their coach a dramatic first victory with the Gophers. ... Minnesota 21, Miami 20

Adam Rittenberg: I thought Minnesota would lose this game before the season, and then felt differently after the Gophers' gutsy performance at USC. But last week's clunker against New Mexico State soured me on Minnesota, and Miami has had two weeks to prepare. ... Miami 27, Minnesota 21

WASHINGTON at NO. 11 NEBRASKA

Adam Rittenberg: After a week of enduring Bo Pelini's wrath, the Blackshirts respond against young quarterback Keith Price as Nebraska pulls ahead in the fourth quarter. ... Nebraska 28, Washington 16

Brian Bennett: The defense simply has to get better, and I think it will slow down Washington's Chris Polk. Taylor Martinez atones for the bowl game as Huskers-Huskies III goes the home team's way. ... Nebraska 31, Washington 14

NORTHWESTERN at ARMY

Brian Bennett: If Dan Persa doesn't play, will either team pass the ball more than five times? Army's unique style will give the Wildcats fits, but they pull it out in the end. ... Northwestern 24, Army 20

Adam Rittenberg: Northwestern has to show more willingness to throw the ball with Kain Colter, as the Wildcats boast great weapons at receiver and tight end and Army struggles against the pass. Coordinator Mick McCall opens up the offense and the Wildcats' defensive line plays well enough for a win. ... Northwestern 27, Army 21

NO. 7 Wisconsin vs. NORTHERN ILLINOIS (at Chicago)

Adam Rittenberg: There will be no shutout this week as Northern Illinois' Chandler Harnish makes some plays against Wisconsin. While former Badgers defensive coordinator Dave Doeren will improve the Huskies' defense eventually, NIU's youth and inability to stop the run proves costly against Montee Ball and James White. ... Wisconsin 45, Northern Illinois 31

Brian Bennett: Doeren's knowledge of the personnel makes this one interesting, and Northern Illinois is better offensively than Oregon State. Russell Wilson is the difference as Doeren sells out against the run. ... Wisconsin 38, Northern Illinois 24

NO. 22 ARIZONA STATE at ILLINOIS

Brian Bennett: Illinois is out to prove itself, but Arizona State is a little more battle tested after beating Missouri last week. Brock Osweiler throws the game-winning pass in overtime of a wild shootout. ... Arizona State 51, Illinois 48

Adam Rittenberg: This is the type of game both of these programs tend to lose. But I'm buying into Illinois and think the Illini rise to the occasion and notch a statement win at home. Vontaze Burfict introduces himself to Nathan Scheelhaase a few times, but Scheelhaase scores a touchdown in the final minute for the game winner. ... Illinois 33, Arizona State 31

NO. 17 OHIO STATE at MIAMI

Adam Rittenberg: This will be a slog for the Buckeyes, who remain shorthanded at key positions. Both Ohio State quarterbacks play and Jordan Hall helps in his return, but the main reason I'm picking the Buckeyes is because I simply don't trust Jacory Harris to limit mistakes. Ohio State 20, Miami 17

Brian Bennett: I'd rather purchase snake oil in bulk from a traveling salesman than pin my hopes on Harris. And yet ... I just don't think Ohio State can make enough explosive plays on offense after that Toledo showing. The Fightin' Shapiros pull the upset. ... Miami 21, Ohio State 16

SEASON RECORDS

Bennett: 19-5 (.792)

Rittenberg: 17-7 (.708)

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