Three media members who will cover today’s game at Memorial Stadium weigh in:
A couple of things stand out for me. I want to find out how good Cincinnati is and whether they are any kind of legitimate threat to Louisville at all. And I want to find out if there’s any real substance to Illinois’ offense. Illinois’ offense is a dramatic change. Now it’s a pass-first offense. I don’t know how much you can tell in a matchup against Southern Illinois. We’ll get a better sense against a Cincinnati defense that is pretty athletic up front. I’ve always liked Nathan Scheelhaase. I’ve always felt like he’s an athletic quarterback and a tough guy. Maybe he always didn’t have enough around him, but when he’s accurate, he’s really accurate. The ball kind of sails on him sometimes, but I’ve always wondered how effective he would be with more parts around him. He certainly is playing with some confidence, which seems surprising with a new offense. He’s getting rid of the ball a little faster. Those are all positive things. I’m curious to see how they handle Cincinnati’s quarterback situation when Munchie Legaux is in there. He’s obviously a run threat, and Cincinnati, at least against Purdue, showed a real willingness to try and put the ball down the field.
Vegas lists Illinois as just an eight-point underdog against Cincinnati. Did they see what the Bearcats did to Purdue (a 42-7 rout)? Regardless, the Illini better get used to that label: underdog. Illinois likely will only be favored in one or two more games — Miami (Ohio) and maybe at Purdue — and play six teams that are currently ranked or receiving votes, with the Bearcats coming first. It’s amazing that Cincinnati, a team that was in Conference USA just a decade ago, is favored at a Big Ten stadium, but the program — with the help of a few key hires by Mike Thomas — has emerged as a perennial Top 25 program, going to six bowl games over the last seven years, including two BCS games. The Bearcats know how to win and how to step on weaker opponents, as shown last week when they outscored Purdue 28-0 in the second half. Illinois, meanwhile, has lost 16 of its last 17 regular season games against FBS opponents and has struggled to finish games. For the Illini to pull off the upset, they must improve field position. No shanked punts and no turnovers in enemy territory. Relying on a bend-but-not-break defense probably won’t do it, either. The Illini defenders have to make some plays, force turnovers and pressure whoever starts at quarterback for Cincinnati. Likely, though, Bill Cubit’s offense will have to put up a ton of points. Illinois will need to play almost flawless football. That’s probably too much to ask of a very young team.
I think the Illinois aerial outburst last week was for real. Nathan Scheelhaase’s ability to pass, however, will only be optimized if Illinois can be effective running the ball. Donovonn Young never got going last week against SIU, and he’s a key to this team’s success the rest of the season. In contrast, the Cincinnati offense was almost perfectly balanced last week (221 yards rushing and 205 yards passing). Many Illini fans have expressed concern over the Illini pass defense, but I’m most concerned about the ability to stop the Cincinnati rushing attack. The Illini are also facing a mobile quarterback for the first time this season. The Illinois rush defense really struggled last season, and I’d like to see visual evidence that it has made significant strides before they hit Big Ten play. I think this one comes down to turnovers. While Cincinnati forced four turnovers last week against Purdue, they also gave the ball up three times. Illinois must capitalize on mistakes. After the game last Saturday, Tim Beckman talked about the need for the Illini to become a second-half team. The Illini haven’t outscored an opponent in the second half in the previous 10 games, and that needs to change.