UI-Miami: 4 keys

Four downs

Beat writer Matt Daniels’ four keys for Illinois today:

1 Rushing success.
From the running backs in particular. Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson are the primary ball carriers for Bill Cubit’s offense. Illinois has racked up 395 rushing yards this season. Ferguson and Young have combined for 253 of those yards, or roughly 64 percent of the total. But neither Young nor Ferguson has had the breakout game yet running the ball, an aspect Young is none too pleased about. Especially from himself. “I’m not satisfied,” he said. “The stats reveal why I shouldn’t be satisfied.” Young is averaging 3.7 yards a carry this season. That’s down from the 4.4 average he had last year and the 5.2 average he accumulated his freshman season. “It’s pretty frustrating,” he said. “It’s not that I’m not working hard or watching enough film, but it’s tough. Hopefully we can get past this and start running the ball a lot better.” For the entire game. “One or two plays here and there doesn’t prove that we can run the ball,” Young said. “We need to be able to make it effective at 4 or 5 yards a pop. We haven’t been doing that.”

2 Tackling better. Tim Banks was all ears on how to improve tackling, including ideas from the media. “You got some tips?” the Illinois defensive coordinator jokingly asked reporters during the bye week. Missed tackles was the main theme out of the Illinois locker room after its 34-24 loss to Washington. It still is a primary concern for Tim Beckman. “There was a lot of missed tackles out in the open field,” the Illinois coach said in reference to the Washington game. “We were in a couple man situations, where when you’re in man-to-man, your vision is on the wide receiver, and we miss a tackle on the wide receiver, then you lose leverage because we’re concentrating so much on covering our man. It’s just work. You have to work on tackling. We’ve got to improve on it and get better out in the open field and swarm tackle as much as we can.” Banks said most of the tackles missed against Washington were based on the defender’s body position. “We need to put our head in the right place, moving our feet and things of that nature,” he said. “We’ll continue to focus on that.”

3 Breaking the skid. It’s more mental than anything. But it is a trend Illinois will want to end. The Illini have lost 10 consecutive games coming off a bye week. That’s right. The week of rest hasn’t exactly treated Illinois kindly in the last decade. You have to look back almost 11 years for the last victory Illinois has had after a bye week (45-14 win on Oct. 26, 2002, at home against Indiana after beating Purdue 38-31 on Oct. 12, 2002). And even further with Illinois winning its first game back off a bye week following a loss in its previous game, which is the situation Illinois is in after losing 34-24 to Washington on Sept. 14 in Chicago. The last time that happened was in 2000, when Illinois beat Iowa 31-0 at home on Oct. 14, which came after Illinois lost 44-10 at Minnesota on Sept. 30. Dating back to the 1992 season, Illinois has started 2-1 on eight different occasions but has only improved to 3-1 once. That was during the 2007 season that ended with a trip to the Rose Bowl. “I wouldn’t say this game is to make a statement, but to get back on track,” wide receiver Ryan Lankford said. “The loss is hard and having to sit on it for the bye week. We want to get back out there, score a bunch of points, have the defense hold them and really get back in the groove of things and start rolling into the Big Ten.”

4 Field position. Miami (Ohio) has Zac Murphy, the best punter in the nation. Don Treadwell has trotted the senior out 28 times, a clear indication why the RedHawks’ offense is among the worst in the country so far. Miami will want to dictate the tempo and control the clock. As best it can. This means Murphy could play a vital role if the RedHawks hope to stage an unlikely win. “He’s done a great job,” Beckman said. “He’s got a very strong leg, and they’ve got a fairly good punt cover team.” Beckman’s punter, Justin DuVernois, received Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week accolades after his effort against Washington. It was easily the junior’s best outing of the season and perhaps his college career. “He had a lot to do with the success that we had in the second half when he made a couple long fields for us against Washington because of the great job he did punting,” Beckman said. “Any time that you’re playing a team that’s trying to control the ball like (Miami) tries to do, changing the field (position) is very, very important.” Going along with that theme is the importance of made field goals. Taylor Zalewski is 4 of 6 on the year for the Illini, with a long of 41 against Washington, but he missed a 40-yard attempt against Washington and a 32-yard attempt against Southern Illinois. “It’s not up to par,” Beckman said. “Percentagewise, we wanted to make sure we were near an 85 percent ratio, and he’s not at that point right now. His kickoffs have been deep in the end zone, but people have still been bringing them out, so it hasn’t been as much with his leg strength, but more with his accuracy of his field goal kicks.”

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