Welcome. We are finally here. Tomorrow marks the beginning of a new Fighting Illini football season. Over nine months, those of us who enjoy Illinois football more than basketball have endured a truly agonizing wait. But none of that matters now. Football is finally here. And it feels so good to say that.
THE WHEN AND WHERE
Game: Youngstown State Penguins @ Illinois Fighting Illini
Time: 11:00 AM Central Time, Saturday August 30th
Place: Memorial Stadium, Champaign, Illinois
TV: Big Ten Network
Oh hellz yeah:
Youngstown State hails from the Missouri Valley Football Conference, where they finished in a tie for second in 2013. Jim Tressel, Tim Beckman's former lover at Ohio State, recently became president of the University, which may help explain why this match-up is happening. Additionally, YSU Head Coach Eric Wolford previously coached at Illinois, so there are plenty of connections between these two teams.
Their university mascot is a penguin, which is pretty awesome if I do say so myself. You have to appreciate a team mascot that has nothing to do with the location of the school (Youngstown State is located in Ohio).
Of offense, you can expect a fairly balanced attack from Youngstown State given their distribution of talent. New this year, starting quarterback Dante Nania is making his first ever start in college football. Nania, a junior who's been the back-up quarterback for years, has been part of the team almost as long as Wolford has been the head coach. There should be little-to-no growing pains as he takes over the starting job from departing senior Kurt Hess.
The key YSU player to watch on offense is running back Martin Ruiz. Ruiz was a second-team All-MVFC running back last year as a freshman and should only improve in 2014. Per the Youngstown State game notes, Ruiz is also the first freshman MVFC running back to eclipse 1,000 yards in his debut season since 1993, and the fourth ever to accomplish that goal. YSU seems to rely heavily on their offense, and Martin Ruiz is the main engine.
By all accounts, it seems like Youngstown State's wide receiver situation is a bit like Illinois' last year. YSU has a bunch of experienced guys at the position, but none really stick out statistically. They'll be on the lookout for a go-to guy in 2014. As for where the Illini might be able to attack the offense, look no further than the offensive line. Only a couple starters return from last year and this should be a good early test for Kenny Nelson and company. If the Illini can't consistently burst through holes in this line, we might be seeing more of the same on the defensive side of the ball this year.
Defensively, Youngstown State seems fairly nondescript. They were a very young team last year and thus didn't try to do too much with their formations. Via an excellent article by Craig over at Illiniboard, the Penguins focused mostly on a basic 4-3 defense last season to avoid putting too much on their players' plates. In that same article, Craig speculates that YSU will play a lot of Cover 4 to try to mitigate the deep ball. That should play right into Illinois' strength from last year, which was consistently moving the ball downfield even in the absence of big plays. I expect YSU to score some points against the Illini, as it would appear that the majority of their talent lies on the offensive side of the ball. Hopefully, this defense won't be able to shut down the Illini like Southern Illinois did in the second half last year.
THE NAME OF THE WEEK
Among their starters, the best name is a dead heat between nose tackle Octavius Brown and linebacker Dubem Nwadiogbu. Octavius has that whole complicated first name but completely regular last name bit going on, while Nwadiogbu sends my mind spinning when I imagine pronouncing his name on first glance. Both gentlemen gave a great effort in this competition, but I give the edge to Dubem Nwadiogbu.
THE #FATGUYTOUCHDOWN UPDATE OF THE WEEK
The #FATGUYTOUCHDOWN Alert System is at #FATCON1 this week, as 305-pound defensive tackle Jake Howe will be taking snaps at fullback.
THE FIVE KEY POINTS
1. The defense must contain running back Martin Ruiz. We've already spoken about him at length, but he seems to be the most talented player on this team and stopping him will all but ensure victory for the home squad.
2. Let Wes Lunt settle in. Last year, we saw Bill Cubit completely go for broke on the first drive against Southern Illinois. With such an inexperienced quarterbacking situation, I'd prefer the Illini take it slow and let Lunt calm down a bit before unleashing any bombs.
3. Pound them with the run. I have a feeling that the strength of this Illini offense this year is going to lie with the two stellar upperclassmen running backs and the grinders on the interior of the offensive line. An explosive running attack was lacking from the Illini last year, and it would certainly be a welcome addition in 2014. This goes in line with the last point, and letting Ferguson and Young run over YSU's inexperienced linebackers seems like the best way to handle this defense.
4. Win the turnover battle. I could pretty much say this about any game, but it seems especially important when one is playing a team that isn't nearly of the same caliber. YSU is a pretty good FCS team, but the only way I see them winning this game is by getting lucky with turnovers and consistently running the ball against the Illini defense. Just hold on to the ball and don't make any huge mistakes-it will all turn out fine if the Illini abide by those rules.
5. Do not suck. Seriously. It's really not that complicated. If Illinois does not suck, they should win this game with ease.
I think you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who believes that the Penguins can take this one on the road tomorrow. They should be able to put up some points behind a potent offense, but I'm just not sure how such a vanilla defense is going to be able to stop the talented Illinois offense. The Illini offensive line should steamroll the opposing defensive line regardless of how many returning starters they have. Not even Illinois has ever lost to an FCS opponent (/sideways glance at Michigan) and this game should be no different. I'll take YSU to keep it close early on and Illinois to pull away late in a big way.