Big Ten: Devils-Illini-091711

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.


[+] 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."

Video: Illinois LB Jonathan Brown

September, 18, 2011

Illinois linebacker Jonathan Brown speaks with Adam Rittenberg on the Fighting Illini's win over Arizona State.

Video: Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase

September, 18, 2011

ESPN's Adam Rittenberg talks to Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase about the significance of Saturday's 17-14 victory against Arizona State.
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.

Illinois defense bails out Lankford

September, 17, 2011
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Ryan Lankford has to be breathing a huge sigh of relief right now.

Illinois avoided a potential huge momentum swing after Lankford muffed a punt that went right to an Arizona State player. The Illini had pinned Arizona State deep and lost the field-position edge after Lankford's miscue.

But a defense led by a ferocious front seven prevented Arizona State from cashing in.

In fact, neither team is capitalizing tonight. The game has featured five turnovers, but neither team has scored off of a takeaway.

Both defenses have looked very sharp after shaky starts -- Illinois has yet to record a first down in the second half-- but both offenses are more than capable of scoring a lot in the final 17 minutes.

Illinois still leads 10-7.
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
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.

Video: Illinois-Arizona State preview

September, 17, 2011

Adam Rittenberg previews Illinois' matchup with Arizona State and says that defense holds the key to victory for both teams.

It's game day in Champaign

September, 17, 2011
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.