Tate: Beckman hoping Illini don't trip up
"You win championships on the road!"
— Illini coach Tim Beckman
That's the challenge.
For all the reasons you've mulled and can't fully comprehend — sleep in own beds, home support, etc. — the Arizona State Sun Devils play better on the grass in Tempe.
They're like two different football teams. Sure, the schedule affects it, but check these stats: They were 5-2 at home and 1-5 on the road last season, 23-12 vs. 8-19 during the last five years, and 46-21 vs. 21-37 in the past decade. It speaks for itself. They are cozy in the friendly sands, and the visitors are often stressed. It's part of a well-publicized dominance (29-6-1) by Pac-12 schools at home against the Big Ten since 1990.
"Just being out of your own environment, with the heat and the time change, that's different," Illini D-line coach Keith Gilmore said. "We started talking about hydration a couple of weeks ago. We'll be ready for the heat (projected high of 102 degrees Saturday). Personally, I like going on the road and clinging together as one. We'll see what we're made of."
And if you think Friday's outward trip is difficult, consider that the UI team won't return to Willard Airport until 5 o'clock Sunday morning. There is nothing comfortable about this trip, whether it's spending so much empty time prior to the 9:30 p.m. (C-U time) kickoff or getting used to the desert's dry heat.
This travel factor and early-week uncertainties about Nathan Scheelhaase have caused the Vegas odds to jump all over the board in what is essentially a tossup. It now appears the UI quarterback will be sufficiently recovered from a sprained ankle, but Beckman is keeping Scheelhaase's status and his own quarterback plans secret.
More of the same
In three previous seasons, Gilmore has sent Josh Brent, Corey Liuget and Whitney Mercilus into the NFL, all early entries. The pro scouts now have turned their attention to two more members of the Illini front four: senior end Michael Buchanan and junior tackle Akeem Spence.
"I really think Akeem falls into that category," Gilmore said. "They may knock him because he's a little short (6-1, 300), but he's a gifted player. He has gotten into great shape, and he feels it. I expect him to do things this season that he's never done before."
Like other 300-pounders, Spence will need some breathers in the desert heat. Said Gilmore:
"It helps that we had a chance to play some second guys against Western Michigan. That was a plus. We'll try to substitute two at a time in the front four, keeping one starter on each side with a sub.
"Justin Staples is back (one-game suspension), and he is a high-motor guy who adds another dimension to our pass rush. I thought we'd get more than two sacks Saturday. I gave them a B or a high C for the game."
This is a statement game for Illinois — and a statement weekend for a Big Ten Conference that failed to impress the voters initially.
First, Illinois: Generally speaking, the Illini haven't fared well against West Coast teams. Last year's clutch wins against Arizona State (17-14) and UCLA (20-14) ended a spiraling stretch of eight years in which the Illini lost seven of eight games to the Westerners. Since 2002, the Illini lost twice to Fresno State and split with San Jose State.
The Big Ten can point to an opening 10-2 record, but the losses by Michigan and Penn State were devastating in terms of the national perspective, and six of those conference victories came by margins between one and seven points against mostly mediocre foes.
With the AP dropping Michigan from No. 8 to No. 19, the Big Ten has no team in the Top 10. That makes it a pressure weekend with so many road challenges, particularly Purdue at Notre Dame, and the West Coast trips by Illinois, Wisconsin (at Oregon State) and Nebraska (at UCLA).
The Big Ten is caught in a weekly battle for respect.
— The Illini are in better overall shape than in their opener. While Supo Sanni doesn't appear ready to return at safety, his running mate from 2011, Steve Hull, is back and ran with the No. 1 unit alongside first-game standout Earnest Thomas. Two other returnees (from first-game suspensions) could find Simon Cvijanovic starting at right tackle and Staples splitting time with Tim Kynard at defensive end.
— Watch for passes in the direction of Jon Davis, the 240-pound tight end who earned the team's first-game MVP honors by rushing for 54 yards but had no receptions. He had 22 catches as a freshman.
— Arizona State may have the shortest defensive unit, and one of the fastest, that the Illini have faced in years. No member of the 11 starters is taller than 6-1. That's unheard of.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.