Tate | Illini's success hinges on the 'Big Uglies'

Tate | Illini's success hinges on the 'Big Uglies'

Football is a violent game. Block and tackle. Overpower. Intimidate.

Disadvantaged coaches employ spread alignments in the hope of finessing it, but that usually fails. The "big uglies" routinely batter down the walls and decide the issue.

As Illini fan Robert Rosenthal concludes via a 17-year analysis, Illini opponents tend to throw fewer passes because of their ability to dominate with the run.

Why risk an interception when there's a safer way?

So for all the crush of summer-autumn coverage of the muddled Illini quarterback situation, and uplifting stories about Mikey Dudek and Ricky Smalling, success is more likely to hinge on the 300-pounders.

Numbers don't tell the story but, with massive Larry Boyd seemingly on the outs, Lovie Smith still has an even dozen at 300 or better on the offensive side.

You can count down from freshman Kievan Myers (330) and senior Nick Allegretti (320) to Alex Palczewski at even 300.

Up front on defense, junior Jamal Milan checks in at 305, sidekicks Tymir Oliver and Kenyon Jackson will report at 290, and prize freshmen Verdis Brown and Calvin Avery tip the scales around 325.

From a pure size standpoint, Illinois stacks up.

Question is: How far have the Illini progressed in the offseason training? Are they tough enough? Will they be durable?

'Scheduling is everything'

We'll learn about the development in the trenches as the long season progresses. A fair number of rivals have similar questions, reminding what an old coach once said, "Scheduling is everything."

Good news: If Illini fans find the gumption to climb back on board, they'll see eight of 12 UI games within Illinois borders, beginning with Kent State and Western Illinois at Memorial Stadium. The Big Ten's West Division is one of the weakest among the five major conferences, and Illinois won't face Eastern powers Ohio State, Michigan or Michigan State (bring on Rutgers and Maryland).

Bad news: South Florida, 21-4 the last two seasons, will be a load Sept. 15 in Chicago, and the opening Big Ten foe is highly-ranked Penn State. Five of nine Big Ten games will be on the road, which may not be all bad, as since 2009, Illinois has averaged less than one Big Ten win at home (seven) and less than one on the road (eight).

The Illini will be idle following their Friday night clash with Penn State Sept. 21, and will enter October to tackle what could be described, generally speaking, as a "workable" schedule the last eight Saturdays.

Sizing up the Big Ten slate

The eight follow:

At Rutgers — The Scarlet Knights are sailing roughly the same leaky boat as the Illini, banking on a freshman quarterback and their ninth offensive coordinator in nine years. They rebounded from a 56-0 hammering by Ohio State to defeat Illinois 35-24 last year. They also beat Purdue and Maryland.

Purdue — It's the Illini's homecoming. The Boilermakers lost heavily on the defensive side as they wade into a schedule featuring Ohio State, Michigan State and Indiana from the East. They'll be counting on more sleight of hand from their heady coach, Jeff Brohm.

At Wisconsin — A powerhouse host features another mountainous offensive line and an All-American running back in Jonathan Taylor. They'll probably post double digit wins for the fifth straight season. Illinois last won at Camp Randall in 2002.

At Maryland — The Terps opened 2017 with a 51-41 victory over Texas, and finished a 4-8 campaign with a 66-3 loss to Penn State. It's anybody's guess who'll be at QB for Maryland — or Illinois — as these uncertain teams reach late October.

Minnesota — More QB uncertainty here with a redshirt freshman (Tanner Morgan) expected to get the early nod. When P.J. Fleck came to Champaign two years ago, his Western Michigan team throttled Illinois in a 34-10 win. But this Gopher team is very much in a rebuilding phase.

At Nebraska — If you're going to beat Scott Frost's team, now's the time. Two QBs departed from a 4-8 team, leaving Frost with freshman Adrian Martinez as the likely starter. Seven up-front regulars return from a 4-8 team. The Huskers tackle Ohio State before Illinois, and then Michigan State directly after.

Iowa — There's more here than meets the eye. Two years removed from a 12-0 start, the Hawkeyes peaked in an 8-5 season last November by upsetting Ohio State, 55-24. Junior Nathan Stanley threw 26 TD passes with just six interceptions.

At Northwestern — Clayton Thorson needed ACL surgery after the Wildcats' 24-23 defeat of Kentucky in the Music City Bowl. They need his passes to offset the departure of stellar running back Justin Jackson. A lot will happen between now and Nov. 24.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com