Arizona St.-Illinois Preview

Neither Illinois nor Arizona State had seasons of note in 2010,
but the early results look good for both this year.

The Fighting Illini and No. 22 Sun Devils meet for the first
time since 1988 on Saturday night in Champaign.

Illinois and Arizona State have both opened with two victories.
The Fighting Illini went 7-6 a year ago while the Sun Devils were
6-6.

While Arizona State is riding high after last Friday’s 37-30
overtime victory over then-No. 21 Missouri, it’s harder to measure
Illinois’ progress following wins of 33-15 over Arkansas State and
56-3 over South Dakota State.

“You can see what they do offensively and defensively in their
schemes,” Sun Devils coach Dennis Erickson said. “Arkansas State is
probably a little bit better for us because they do a lot of the
same things as we do, opposed to South Dakota State.”

The Fighting Illini led the Big Ten in rushing yards per game a
season ago at 246.1 and are on top of that category again this year
at 283.0. They are doing it without Mikel Leshoure, who gained
1,697 yards and is now with the Detroit Lions.

“We’re facing a football team that’s awfully talented in
Illinois,” Erickson said. “They’ve been building that thing for
quite a while. They have some really good athletes, probably faster
and more athletic than most teams in that league.”

The Sun Devils survived their last game despite blowing a
14-point lead in the fourth quarter. Brock Osweiler’s 11-yard
touchdown to Jamal Miles in the extra session was the
difference.

Osweiler completed 24 of 32 passes for 353 yards and three
touchdowns.

The Fighting Illini are eager to face their first big-name
opponent.

“It was crazy just to think ‘Hey, we’re playing these guys next
week,'” freshman running back Donovonn Young said. “It’s big time
college football, and I think I’m ready for it.”

While Osweiler is beginning his first season as the full-time
starter, Illinois’ Nathan Scheelhaase has the edge in experience in
his second year. Scheelhaase has thrown for 369 yards and two
scores and ran for 117 yards and two touchdowns.

“All the players wanted to get to this point and be 2-0,” said
Scheelhaase, who has thrown 15 touchdowns and one interception over
his last nine games. “We know it’s going to be a big week of
preparation. We’re excited about the improvements we’ve made up
until this point.”

Scheelhaase’s execution is a big reason why Illinois leads the
nation in third-down efficiency, converting 21 of 29. The Fighting
Illini lead the Big Ten in points (89) and total offense (496.0
yards per game) after setting a school record by scoring 423 points
last season.

“Ron (Illinois coach Ron Zook) feels like he has a football team
that can compete for the championship there, so they’re kind of in
a similar situation that we’re in,” Erickson said. “If you watch
them on tape and the returners that they have, they’re very
talented.”

Zook’s team has been very disciplined as well with five
penalties – the fifth-lowest total in the FBS.

“I think these guys understand that it’s two wins,” Zook said.
“We still have at least 10 more regular-season games to go and we
have to be ready to play.”

Arizona State won both previous meetings in 1987 and 1988. The
Sun Devils are traveling to face a Big Ten opponent for the second
straight year after losing 20-19 to Wisconsin last September.

Illinois hasn’t started 3-0 since 2001, while Arizona State
began with two wins each of the three previous seasons before
losing its third game.