It’s week 2 already and Cincinnati is up against its second Big Ten opponent of the season. But don’t get too excited. Illinois is a program that, outside of a few years, has been perennially battling for the bottomfeeder status in the conference. Heck, Tommy Tuberville appears so worried about them that he spent all of 45 seconds talking about the Fighting Illini during his weekly press conference.
But even though Illinois and Purdue are reeling programs, the former is definitely stronger than Cincinnati’s week 1 opponent. As such the Bearcats have to gameplan differently this week to get their second win of the 2013 season. Overall, the Illini have a lot of holes on their two-deep from years of lackluster recruiting but boast an experienced, talented quarterback in Nathan Scheelhaase and a surplus of battled-hardened receivers. The defense, especially the passing defense, is still a major question mark along with the offensive line. Linebacker appears to be an area of strength as well as runningback if they can get proper blocking ahead of them.
See? Different opponent, different keys to the game. Let’s get to them.
1a) Pass The Ball.
1b) Don’t Stop Passing The Ball.
Illinois is simply a terrible team defensing the pass. Their defensive line barely creates any pressure and the secondary tends to give up yards in chunks. Last week, Kory Faulkner of the FCS Southern Illinois Salukis passed for 312 yards and 3 touchdowns against the Fighting Illini. He averaged almost 12.5 yards per completion and wasn’t sacked at all despite passing the ball 40 times. Whomever is quarterback this week, be they Munchie Legaux or Brendon Kay, better be comfortable airing it out a bit because this passing defense is basically begging to be thrown at.
2) Get To Scheelhaase
Against the Salukis, Illinois senior QB Nathan Scheelhaase was sacked five times but still threw for over 400 yards. Two receivers notched 100+ yard games. The Fighting Illini passing attack is the brainchild of head coach Tim Beckman. It’s extremely dangerous despite not translating to the kind of record like the one he boasted at Toledo. But that speaks to other areas of weakness on this team. The Illini can score some points but only if Scheelhaase can stay upright. Easier said than done against a UC front seven that is extremely active and fairly deep. They must shine this Saturday to keep him from tearing apart Cincinnati’s secondary with his experienced group of receivers.
3) Establish Control Of The Trenches
Along the defensive line, this is obvious from reading key #2, but the offensive line must step up yet again this week for Cincinnati to be successful. They’re a talented and deep unit but have already lost center Dan Sprague (for the season) along with arguably their strongest lineman left guard Austen Bujnoch last week. It’s unclear if he will be back against Illinois. With or without him the Bearcats will be facing a defensive front with multiple players at or approaching 300 lbs, even the defensive ends. By comparision, UC’s largest edge rusher is the 262 lbs Chad West. Illinois’ defensive line struggles to get pressure and Cincinnati blockers are talented but that’s no reason for them to rest on their laurels. Otherwise, there will be many a sacked Bearcat quarterback and some very unhappy runningbacks on Saturday.
4) Shut Down Secondary
The Fighting Illini are a spread-em-out, throw-it-a-bunch team under the watchful eye of passing guru Tim Beckman. They’ll regularly line up with three or four wide receivers much like the UC teams of the recent past. To counter that Cincinnati will need one of its comparatively weaker units to step up. With Drew Frey, Chris Williams, and Camerron Cheatham gone there has been an infusion of youth here in Adrian Witty, Zach Edwards, and Trenier Orr. Now I mention they’re “weaker” only in a relative sense, as the linebacker corps is among the best in the AAC if not the country and the defensive line is slightly ahead of the secondary. The Bearcats’ DBs are fairly inexperienced but have tons of upside. They’ll be tested this week against and passing attack that knows how to distribute the football. Hopefully these players grow up quickly on Saturday.
5) Ok, Maybe Run A Little Bit Too
I know I know, this Fighting Illini secondary is a sieve. The Bearcats’ talented receivers can expose a weak defensive passing unit and the quarterbacks need to take advantage when possible. But Cincinnati still must play to its strength, which is the running game. If they can reel off solid gains on the ground (4-5-6 yards at a time), it will force Illinois linebackers and safeties to assist in run support, which will only open more space for the passing game to exploit. I trust Eddie Gran will implement the right mix of running and passing plays this Saturday.
AAC Games – 2013 Record: 6 – 2 (75.0%) – F’ing kidding me, UConn and USF?!
Central Florida v. Florida International: Against Akron last week the Knights scored a touchdown on their second offensive play, a 91 yard strike from quarterback Blake Bortles. They appear to be a true contender for an AAC crown. On the flip side, FIU seems to have no idea what it’s doing after the questionable firing of Mario Cristobal. The Golden Panthers scored just 10 points against Maryland last week and will have a heck of a time keeping up with the UCF passing attack. Central Florida 45, Florida International 17
Louisville v. Eastern Kentucky: Like the Knights, the Cardinals burst out of the gates against Ohio last weekend. Teddy Bridgewater showed why he’s a Heisman contender this season with a 355 yard, five touchdown performance. Those numbers should balloon this Saturday with UL hosting FCS opponent EKU. Louisville 57, Eastern Kentucky 10
South Florida v. Michigan State: After getting torn apart by FCS McNeese State, South Florida looks like they’re every bit the dumpster fire that they were for much of the time under Skip Holtz. Given that Michigan State’s offense is Michigan State’s offense, the Bulls might give up fewer points this weekend than they did against the Cowboys (53). Still, there are major problems on both sides of the ball for USF and the Spartans should prevail behind an always stingy Pat Narduzzi defense. Michigan State 6, South Florida 0
Rutgers v. Norfolk State: The Scarlet Knights showed they still have a pretty potent offense this season in the shootout against Fresno State on Thursday night. But that defense was unusually porous for a Rutgers team that is typically strong on that side of the football. Even so, they are still plenty dangerous enough take down an FCS team. Rutgers 45, Norfolk State 13
Temple v. Houston: The first AAC game of the 2013 season pits two programs with far different opening weekends. Temple played well but lost 28-6 against Notre Dame and Houston beat the living tar out of Southern University. I fully believe the Owls are better than their record right now and the Cougars aren’t as good as theirs (although, they’re still a solid team). I’m picking UH this time. Houston 34, Temple 17
Memphis v. Duke: Memphis has had a reeling football program for a while now but have made huge improvements there in the last couple of years. They had a bye in week 1 and were able to have a little extra time preparing for Duke. However, the Tigers are still the Tigers as far as I’m concerned and that’ll show against the Blue Devils on Saturday. Duke 38, Memphis 20
SMU v. Montana State: The Mustangs simply ran into a better team against Texas Tech on Friday night but seemed to do a lot of things right. This could be a surprise team in the AAC this year and should gain some momentum after beating an FCS team this weekend. SMU 44, Montana State 10