Pac-12: Illinois Fighting Illini

Video: Washington RB Bishop Sankey

September, 14, 2013

Washington running back Bishop Sankey talks about the team's second-half surge, his return to the Midwest and a 208-yard rushing performance in a win against Illinois in Chicago.

Video: No. 19 Washington 34, Illinois 24

September, 14, 2013

Bishop Sankey combined for over 270 yards and two touchdowns as No. 19 Washington held off Illinois 34-24.

Big Ten vs. Pac-12 roundtable

September, 11, 2013
Editor's note: To watch the show on your smartphone, click here.

Week 3 features four Big Ten vs. Pac-12 nonconference matchups: No. 16 UCLA at No. 23 Nebraska; No. 19 Washington vs. Illinois (Chicago); No. 4 Ohio State at California and No. 20 Wisconsin at Arizona State. Join us at 2 p.m. ET as Michigan reporter Chantel Jennings moderates a discussion between Big Ten reporter Adam Rittenberg and Pac-12 reporter Ted Miller.

Washington had a singular, overriding goal entering the opening weekend of the season: Win. Beat Boise State. Walk out of renovated Husky Stadium at 1-0.

So mission accomplished.

But 1-0 is not all the Huskies got out of that 38-6 victory.

For one, there's winning and then there's delivering the sort of whipping that really good teams do to pretty good teams to make a national statement. We don't know yet how good the Broncos are, but the Huskies stomped the nation's No. 19 team like you'd expect, say, LSU to take care of business. The Huskies recorded plenty of style points on both sides of the ball.

Keith Price
AP Photo/Ted S. WarrenThe season opener against Boise State was more than just a victory for Keith Price and Washington.
Tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins also sat out because he was suspended for an offseason DUI. Winning the way the Huskies did without him is a positive on several levels. First, it shows that the offense can roll up nearly 600 yards without the nation's best tight end. That speaks to the number of weapons the Huskies offense has. The biggest revelation in the game might have been the depth and talent of the Huskies receivers even after Kasen Williams.

Further, and beyond Xs and Os, coach Steve Sarkisian was able to score a point for his discipline. There was plenty of thinking that ASJ would play -- Kevin and I have debated it for weeks, with me predicting he would play (and, as Kevin quickly pointed out via text, me being wrong, wrong, wrong). That means no media snark putting an asterisk on the win for a lack of accountability.

And, in a more Machiavellian coaching sense, let's not forgot that ASJ gets to rest his surgically repaired pinkie for two more weeks before going to Chicago to play Illinois, as the Huskies are off this week. That, quietly, is a big deal.

This off week also feels fortuitous.

A lot was put into this game by the Huskies. Even though Sarkisian and his players relentlessly beat the drum of "it's just one game," the reason they relentlessly beat that drum is because few saw it that way. This game was a grand opening of not only a stadium, it also was the "hello world" moment for what Sarkisian has repeatedly described as his best team. A face plant would have substantially lowered Sark and the program's Q-rating. It also, by the way, would have devalued whatever the Huskies might have accomplished thereafter -- taking the perception of the Pac-12 down with it -- because a loss to a non-AQ team has a lingering transitive effect that's hard to shake.

What does that mean? Well, did you ever bring up Georgia's loss to Boise State to open 2011 as a way to diminish the SEC? But of course we, er, you did.

So the off week means the Huskies can enjoy the game tape, put ice on some bumps and bruises and not worry about the proverbial "let-down game" a week later. They get extra time to get ASJ back into the swing of things. They get extra time to refocus.

The eventual quality of their refocusing is the next test. The Huskies take on a struggling Illinois team -- the Illini barely slipped by Southern Illinois on Saturday -- at Soldier Field on Sept. 14. While the Huskies get extra time to rest and game-plan this weekend, Illinois will have its hands full with a tough Cincinnati squad on Saturday.

Still, Washington has not been good on the road of late. They are 3-8 the past two seasons away from Seattle, and among those defeats are plenty of flat performances. If Washington approaches the efficiency and focus it showed in the win over Boise State, it rolls by two or more touchdowns. But if it just goes through the motions and gets upset, the entire positive narrative of the Boise State victory could reverse course in an equally negative way.

Part of the challenge of being a good college football team is being good every week. It's about not settling. It's not about pining for eight wins. Heck, it's not really about victory totals and postseason rewards.

It's about an obsessive focus on every moment of preparation and game-day execution. It's about "winning the day," but we won't type that because the phrase has been taken.

Washington showed everyone Saturday what it can be this fall. The performance produced credible grounds for optimism. But it also raised a bar over which the Huskies now must consistently leap over. Or end up wondering what might have been. Again.
Illinois junior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase will miss tonight's game against Arizona State because of a sprained ankle, a team spokesman confirmed.

Scheelhaase made the trip to Arizona State and went through some warmups, but he has been ruled out for the game. Reilly O'Toole will start at quarterback for the Illini, and Miles Osei also is expected to see action under center.

Scheelhaase, the starter for the past two seasons, sustained the ankle injury in last week's opener against Western Michigan. He sat out practices Monday and Tuesday before returning for Wednesday’s workout, but O'Toole and Osei took most of the snaps with the first-team offense.

Instant analysis: Illinois 20, UCLA 14

December, 31, 2011

UCLA needed a special NCAA waiver just to get into a bowl game. Illinois lost its final six games and had assistants threatening to boycott this game. Is it any wonder that the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl was, shall we say, a little ragged?

How the game was won: The Illinois offense disappeared over the second half of the season and didn't do a whole lot in this one, either. But the team's defense remained stout throughout the seaosn and was inspired to play hard for interim coach Vic Koenning, their former defensive coordinator. The Illini defense came up with a score, sacked UCLA quarterback Kevin Prince five times and allowed just 220 total yards. The Bruins' only points came when they got a short field in the first half and when they connected on a bomb with 29 seconds left and Illinois already starting to celebrate. Defense wins minor bowl championships.

Turning point: UCLA led 7-3 and the Illinois offense was completely stagnant late in the third quarter. That's when the Bruins provided a gift. Prince's sideline pass was picked off by cornerback Terry Hawthorne, who had nothing but open field in front of him as he ran it in for the 39-yard touchdown. Hawthorne never took his eyes off the quarterback, and Prince misread the coverage. That pick-six sapped the spirits of the Bruins and loosened things up for the Illini.

Player of the game: Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. His passing numbers weren't terribly impressive (18-for-30, 189 yards, one touchdown) and he struggled early on. But Scheelhaase took on the brunt of the running game with leading rusher Jason Ford suspended for this game, finishing with 110 yards on 22 carries. He also had a nine-yard catch, giving him more total yards than UCLA's entire offense.

Stat of the game: Thanks in large part to the sacks, Illinois outrushed UCLA 179-19.

Record performance: Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus was credited with 1.5 sacks, giving him a nation's best 16 this season. That tied the school record set by Simeon Rice. He got in on his second sack despite being held on the play. Mercilus was one of the most improved players in the nation this season and will almost certainly skip his senior year to enter the NFL Draft.

Strangest stat: UCLA finishes the season with eight losses, yet the Bruins played in a bowl game. It might be a while before we see that happen again.

Unsung hero: Illinois' Ryan Lankford. He averaged 45.6 yards on five punts, with two downed inside the 20. He also had three catches for 24 yards. Now that's versatility.

Best call: Midway through the fourth quarter, UCLA came after Scheelhaase on a blitz. But Illinois had the exact right call on: a slant pass to A.J. Jenkins. The one guy the Bruins couldn't leave open caught a short strike from Scheelhaase and glided in untouched for a 60-yard touchdown. The score became crucial when UCLA tacked on that touchdown in the final minute.

What it means: Not much of anything. Both programs will wake up on New Year's Day with new head coaches -- Jim Mora Jr. for UCLA, Tim Beckman for Illinois. So both teams will mostly have a blank slate, and they'd rather forget most of the 2011 season, anyway. Beckman will drastically change the offense to a spread, and he has to be happy to see Scheelhaase turn in a confidence-building bowl performance. Beckman will need to keep the defense playing at this level without Koenning. Mora needs to improve the overall toughness of the underachieving Bruins and change the attitude around the program .

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."
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.

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.