Final Word: Illini in a 'Rush'
CHAMPAIGN — The Wisconsin game is one Illinois coaches have anticipated since it was announced.
Primarily because it’s at night. Which offers a better chance for recruits, both in-state and out-of-state, to attend.
Director of player personnel Marcus Berry, along with the rest of the Illinois recruiting staff, will have a whole host of recruits to keep them busy. At least 40 recruits spread throughout the Class of 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017 are slated to visit.
“There’s 2014 and 2015 players coming in,” Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. “Right now the majority of players from the Chicago area, Indianapolis area and St. Louis area will be up for the game.”
Eight of the Class of 2014 commits Illinois has — center Nick Allegretti from Lincoln-Way East, running back Matt Domer from Chicago Mount Carmel, tight end Jordan Frazier from Lighthouse Christian Academy in Springfield, Mo., quarterback Chayce Crouch from Newark (Ohio) Catholic, linebacker Austin Roberts from Rice Lake (Wis.), wide receiver Mike Dudek from Neuqua Valley, wide receiver Malik Turner from Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin and defensive lineman Tito Odenigbo — are expected to show up.
Running back Madre London from St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., a Class of 2014 recruit, is expected to make his official visit this weekend. London has narrowed his choices to Illinois, Michigan State, Mississippi State, Nebraska, Virginia and Wisconsin. Other top 2014 undecided recruits expected to arrive at Memorial Stadium include defensive end Chris Slatyon from Crete-Monee and Downers Grove North linebackers Vontae Diggs and Richard Olekanma. Slayton has offers from 15 schools, including Illinois, Indiana, Miami, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska and Wisconsin, among others. Diggs is a former Toledo commit who decommitted from the Rockets in late August, while Olekanma is a Toledo commit.
Some of the top targets for the Illini in the Class of 2015 who could take in tonight’s game are Benet Academy quarterback Jack Beneventi, New Lenox Providence Catholic wide receiver Miles Boykin, Lexington (Ky.) Catholic quarterback Reese Ryan, Indianapolis Lawrence Central linebacker Darrin Kirkland, DeKalb running back Dre Brown, Chicago Marist wide receiver Flynn Nagel, Dublin (Ohio) Scioto linebacker Nick Conner, Columbus (Ohio) Walnut Ridge linebacker Anthony McKee, Centennial quarterback Jimmy Fitzgerald, Kettering (Ohio) Archbishop Alter defensive lineman Kraig Howe and Downers Grove north athlete David Edwards, among others. Kentrail Moran, a Class of 2016 running back from O’Fallon, is another top priority for Illinois who should be at tonight’s game.
Illinois recruiting coordinator Alex Golesh understands the significance of this weekend from a recruiting standpoint.
“It’s a big one,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of kids from out of state coming. Should be a good environment. We’ve been plugging it, so now we’ve got to go out and perform.”
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Illinois went through a brief walkthough at Memorial Stadium on Friday evening before departing its home venue around 6:30 p.m.
Wisconsin arrived in Champaign-Urbana by mid-afternoon on Friday but did not have a walkthrough at Memorial Stadium.
The team watched “Rush,” the recent movie directed by Ron Howard focusing on the rivalry in the 1970s between Formula One drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda, at the Savoy 16 movie theater after having dinner at the Champaign Country Club. Beckman said the team will have another walkthrough later this morning at Memorial Stadium. Beckman put the Illinois-Cincinnati game from earlier this season on the players’ iPads so they could watch that game in the afternoon if they choose to.
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Jonathan Brown, Steve Hull, Ted Karras and Miles Osei are the four captains for Illinois tonight.
The players vote on captains every Thursday. This is the fourth time Brown is a captain, third honor for Osei, second time for Hull and first selection for Karras.
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Teko Powell is expected to play tonight. The backup defensive tackle has missed the last two games with a foot injury.
“He brings a different dimension in there,” defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. “He’s obviously athletic, but he’s also a big kid. Just having him back, from a pass-rushing standpoint should pay dividends right away.”
Vontrell Williams could also go against the Badgers. The redshirt freshman from Chicago Mount Carmel has not played this season after he started off preseason practices nursing a foot injury. While Illinois hasn’t had the rash of injuries it sustained last year, most have come at defensive tackle. Abe Cajuste didn’t play against Washington because of an ankle injury while Bryce Douglas, whom Beckman is planning to redshirt, has not been available the last two games because of a neck injury.
“When you lose four guys like that,” Beckman said, “it does put a damper on that situation.”
The Illinois injury report released Thursday night didn’t have any surprises. Douglas, linebacker Henry Dickinson and center Tony Durkin were the only ones listed as out for tonight’s game. Durkin (shoulder) and Dickinson (leg) are both out for the season.
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Illinois has sported the all-orange uniforms it will wear against the Badgers before. Just not recently. The last time Illinois went with that attire came during a 38-30 home loss to Purdue on Sept. 25, 2004.
It’s the fourth different uniform combination Illinois will go with this season, and third one in as many games.
“I’ll wear whatever,” Karras said. “I’ve never been into the jerseys big-time. College football is kind of turning into a fashion show, but I’m excited for orange. The stadium is going to be all orange. We’re the only orange team in the Big Ten, so why not?”
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Beckman won’t fall for the bait. Of whether today’s game is any bigger than the five previous games Illinois has had, or the six games coming up on the schedule after Wisconsin leaves town.
“They all are in the Big Ten,” Beckman said. “This is a very balanced conference. Just about top to bottom, it’s fairly balanced.”
Some Illinois players let on the significance of today’s game.
“It’s going to be a challenge,” Karras said. “This is the Big Ten. This is why you came to Illinois to play teams like Wisconsin at night at home. I think we’re going to shine.”
Tonight’s game is the midway point of the season for Illinois. A win obviously strengthens a potential bowl bid for Illinois while a loss raises more questions about postseason play. Either way, Karras doesn’t see today as a possible turning point for the Illini’s season.
“I think we’re on the right track,” he said. “A win would help us spring forward and give us a little bit more momentum going into the seven-week stretch of the Big Ten season.”
Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said the team’s sense of urgency is elevated now that it’s in the midst of conference play.
“Every week, we’ll be playing games that really matter for what we want to have happen in the postseason,” Scheelhaase said. “It’s seven weeks to give yourself an opportunity to play longer. We’re all kind of recognizing the moment that’s at hand.”
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This is the 80th meeting between Illinois and Wisconsin in a series that, throughout the years, is decidedly even. Each team has won 36 times, with seven ties.
Granted, Wisconsin is 7-3 in the last 10 meetings. But all of the meetings have happened during the day. This is the first night game between the two opponents. Jason Heggemeyer, Illinois’ assistant athletic director in charge of ticketing, said on Thursday that projections for attendance were between 44,000 and 47,000.
Illinois has had four of its first five games kick off at 11 a.m., with the 5 p.m. start against Washington last month the only one not starting before the afternoon.
“You just have to plan out your day differently so you’re not too sedentary or too jittery,” Karras said. “If you’re jittery at 12, then you’re going to be tired at 7, so you might schedule a nap in there, drink a few Gatorades and stretch.”
Linebacker Mason Monheim said the anticipation to play in tonight’s game will build throughout the day.
“We’ll just be kind of waiting and getting antsy to play,” he said. “The lights will turn on, the crowd’s roaring and ... it will be completely different than playing in the afternoon.”
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Beckman has familiarized himself with Wisconsin’s defense in breaking down film this week. But he already had a bit of a scouting report on the Badgers’ starting strong safety, Dezmen Southward.
The redshirt senior from Sunrise, Fla., is the stepson of Eli Rasheed, the defensive line coach at Toledo under Beckman who still serves in that role for the Rockets.
“He used to be there during the summer,” Beckman said. “We used to see him even prior to him going to Wisconsin, so I know a lot about him as a young man. Great kid and a great player.”