Who will make a difference in Saturday's 11 a.m. kick at Memorial Stadium. Here are three players from each team to watch, courtesy beat writer MATT DANIELS:
JOSH FERGUSON, RB
Illinois has generated some big plays on offense this year. That’s evident. Ferguson is most effective when he is not running among the Illinois interior linemen. Again, that’s pretty evident. It’s a key component with how offensive coordinator Bill Cubit wants to get the Naperville native involved in the game.
“He’s a guy that when he gets the ball, you just hold your breath because you never really know what’s going to happen,” Illinois wide receiver Steve Hull said. “That’s a huge credit to Josh, and I know he’s worked really hard offseason to work on explosion and agility. I’ve never seen it the way Josh has it. The ability to make people miss and explode out of cuts is unbelievable. His vision is something that’s really remarkable.”
Ferguson enters Saturday ranked second in the FBS in yards per reception at 26.4. He has shown his ability at catching the deep pass (48-yard touchdown against Cincinnati) and turning a short completion into a long gain (53-yard touchdown against Southern Illinois off a screen pass). And he has the longest rush of the season for Illinois, a 34-yard scamper against SIU.
“He’s got outstanding quickness,” Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. “The philosophy is to put your players in a position to make plays, and what Coach Cubit has done is a great job of putting Josh in position to make plays if it’s out in space or off a jet sweep or whatever it might be.”
Donovonn Young agrees.
“He’s the same Josh to me,” the fellow running back said. “Coach Cubit is using him to his abilities. He’s a speedy guy, and he’s built to make plays in the open field. That’s what he’s been doing this year.”
MARTIZE BARR, WR
A quick glance at the five junior college players Beckman brought in last December show varied results. Zane Petty and Eric Finney both have seven tackles, but are backups on defense. A knee injury to Finney on the third day of practice set him back. Abe Cajuste has yet to record a tackle in two games and missed the Washington game with an ankle injury. Offensive linemen Dallas Hinkhouse hasn’t played yet, and was moved to defensive line last week before the Illinois coaches thought better and put him back at tackle.
Then there’s Barr. The wideout is tied for the team lead in receptions at 10 with Ryan Lankford. But he still has much to prove. He wasn’t much of a factor against Washington, only catching one pass for 11 yards.
“He’s a guy we can rely on,” Hull said. “He’s pretty sure-handed and he runs good routes. He knows how to work the areas and work the linebackers. That’s a craft he’s really good at. He can be very valuable in the short passing game.”
Or the deep passing game, like he displayed against Cincinnati with his 30-yard touchdown grab. The former Iowa Western Community product by way of New Mexico and Coolidge High School in Washington, D.C., seems to have found a home in Champaign-Urbana.
“He came in and really wanted to get to know everybody, which was good,” Lankford said. “He wanted to be around us and wanted to do things with us. As a receiving corps because we’re a close-knit group. We felt like he was going to be a guy that can make plays for us, and that’s what he’s doing.”
HOUSTON BATES, LEO
He has to contend with both pass coverage and pass rushing, splitting his time at practices with both the defensive linemen and outside linebackers.
Taking on bigger offensive tackles is an adjustment for the former linebacker, who made the move to this hybrid position in the offseason.
“I’ve had to put on a lot more weight this season, which I can carry it and do fine with it,” Bates said. “I like pass rushing, and I need to utilize that more in the next (few) games.”
The versatility of Bates’ position will come into play against the RedHawks. Mainly on outside runs or read option runs. He is tied for second on the team in tackles for loss (2.5) and also has one pass breakup to his name this season.
“With Miami’s offense, it’s just assignment football,” Bates said. “Really, it’s just staying on the line of scrimmage most of the time because they’re reading you at the end position. If you keep your shoulders squared and stay on the line, then it gives them a tough read and takes them a lot longer.”
Defensive line coach Greg Colby said he didn’t have any preconceived notion of Bates before he started at Illinois. He likes what he’s seen so far.
“He plays a thousand miles an hour, and he gets everything out of the ability that he has,” Colby said. “I thought he came into his own early in the spring, and he was comfortable at the position. You could see that he could do the things we were looking for.”
While Bates is in no way the type of athlete former Illini standout Simeon Rice was, the responsibilities he has are somewhat similar. Colby knows. He coached Rice at Illinois two decades ago, but Lou Tepper used Rice more as a pass rusher.
“It’s nice having that flexibility and having a guy who can do both and is pretty good at both,” Colby said. “It gives you a lot of options that you don’t have with a big slug in there that can’t drop and can’t do those things athleticially. That’s why you see more and more programs having that hybrid kind of end these days.”
AUSTIN BOUCHER, QB
Playing in a Big Ten stadium won’t intimidate the fifth-year senior. His playing time has been scattered with the RedHawks during his career, but he filled in nicely late in the 2010 season when Zac Dystert went down with an injury. So well in fact he led Miami (Ohio) to a MAC championship and a win against Middle Tennessee in the GoDaddy.com Bowl. The Illinois defense will get its first look at a left-handed quarterback this year, although Boucher has not wowed with his passing this year (268 yards, one touchdown, three interceptions).
Illinois coach Tim Beckman is familiar with Boucher after recruiting him at Toledo.
“He’s a very, very talented quarterback,” Beckman said. “He won a state championship in high school and got to play quite a bit as a redshirt freshman.”
Beckman compared the offense Miami (Ohio) is running this year to the option-style systems Georgia Southern and Georgia Tech utilize.
It’s vastly different from what the RedHawks have done in the past, and it’s evident Boucher is still getting adjusted to the run-first approach.
Illinois defensive coordinator Tim Banks went against the RedHawks during the 2011 season when he was at Cincinnati.
“They were a chuck it and throw it every snap,” Banks said. “Now they’re a lot more balanced with the emphasis probably a little bit more on the run. They’re doing a lot of spread-option right now. They’re really different.”
KENT KERN, LB
He’s the RedHawks’ version of Jonathan Brown. The sophomore from Toledo leads Miami in tackles with 34, and his 11.3 tackles per game has him ninth in the country. Chances are Nathan Scheelhaase will have a good idea of where No. 43 is at all times. Kern has led Miami in tackles in two of its three games, compiling 13 in the opener against Marshall and leading the defense with 15 last Saturday against Cincinnati. Kern only needs six more tackles this season to surpass the total he achieved during the 2012 season.
One Illinois player is somewhat familiar with Kern. Defensive end Tim Kynard went to the same high school in Toledo, St. John’s, where Kern excelled at on both sides of the ball. The two never played together at St. John’s, since Kynard was a senior when Kern was a freshman.
“That’s going to be really cool to see him,” Kynard said. “I knew him and watched him play a little freshman ball. It’s different now. I’m not going to go against him, except for punt team, maybe, but it’s going to be great seeing him.”
DAYONNE NUNLEY, CB
The veteran of the RedHawks secondary is accustomed to making plays. The three-year starter enters the weekend with 13 career interceptions. He made his first one of the season last Saturday against Cincinnati in a game where he recorded 11 tackles. He also broke up three passes from Cincinnati quarterback Brendon Kay and earned the Mid-American Conference East Defensive Player of the Week honors. The senior is a two-time first-team All-MAC performer and burst onto the scene his freshman season with six interceptions. Not too shabby.
Beckman is well aware of what Nunley can do.
“He’s a great player,” Beckman said. “He was a great player when he played against us when I was at Toledo. You knew he was going to be one of the tops in the Mid-American. He’s definitely one of those guys.”
The RedHawks have two other defensive backs with one interception this year, but Illinois wide receiver Ryan Lankford said the offense will need to keep an eye out for Nunley.
“They have a good secondary,” Lankford said. “They have a guy who we’re really looking at and playing around him to make sure we take advantage of his shortcomings, I guess you could say. Really, every week though is going to come down to us making plays.”