No. 19 Illinois hoping to stay perfect at Indiana
Indiana coach Kevin Wilson is on cleanup duty.
He expects his team to block better, protect better, play with better fundamentals and make fewer mistakes on defense. And he needs it fixed now with No. 19 Illinois coming to town.
''We have way too many mental errors, way too many, way too many loafs, guys not playing as hard as they can play,'' the blunt-talking coach said while critiquing his team. ''My way of fixing things is we continue to practice and practice hard. Keep practicing in a lethargic way, you're going to play in a lethargic way.''
Wilson is doing anything he can to get it right.
He's changed the lineup, created open competition for jobs, asked upperclassmen to provide more leadership, played 16 true freshmen and watched six players already leave the program since the season began.
It hasn't worked yet. The Hoosiers are still struggling to score touchdowns and stop opponents.
Wilson also understands this is more than a five-week project and that he can't change the message midway through the season, especially given the upcoming gauntlet.
The trek begins Saturday when the Illini (5-0, 1-0 Big Ten) visit Bloomington. Then Indiana (1-4, 0-1) heads to No. 4 Wisconsin, followed by a trip to Iowa. After that, there is Northwestern, back-to-back trips to Ohio State and Michigan State before closing against archrival Purdue.
So there's no time to waste.
Illinois is off to its best start since the 1951 team started 7-0 and will try to stay in the group of 15 undefeated teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
''In my opinion, they're well-tested, they're playing good games and they deserve all the accolades they're getting and that's not blowing smoke,'' Wilson said of Illinois. ''Game 2 in the Big Ten will be a big challenge for us.''
On paper, it looks like a mismatch.
But appearances can be deceiving.
Illinois' last three wins have come by three or fewer points, the first time that's happened in school history, and Saturday marks the first time Illinois hits the road this season. The Illini are just 2-5 in their last seven trips to Indiana.
Coach Ron Zook called the Illini's practices Monday and Tuesday their best of the season.
''They know it's going to take that kind of effort to get where we need to go and be - and make sure that we're ready to play when we go over there,'' Zook said.
Illinois seems to have the perfect combination to expose the Hoosiers' biggest weaknesses.
Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase threw for a career-high 391 yards and three touchdowns in last week's comeback victory over Northwestern. Reciever A.J. Jenkins set a new school record with 268 yards and tied another with three TD catches. It could be a dangerous combination against a defense that Wilson acknowledged blew coverage assignments against Penn State.
Plus, the Illini are averaging 209.8 yards on the ground and now face the Big Ten's worst-ranked run defense.
It's not just the offense that has an advantage.
While Wilson has bemoaned the fact that Indiana's receivers had seven drops last week and that he needs the running backs to pick up extra yards after getting hit, the most consistent problem has been the offensive line.
This week's test may be the most difficult.
Illinois leads the Big Ten with 17 sacks and went into the weekend No. 5 in the nation.
''After some of the losses they've had, I'm sure they're going to be fired up. They're playing a ranked team and we can't take them lightly,'' said Michael Buchanan, Illinois' pass rush specialist. ''I think it's really important to just get pressure on the guys.''
Wilson, meanwhile, is trying to figure out who can play.
Last week's starting quarterback Dusty Kiel got dinged up in the Penn State loss but is likely to start again unless Edward Wright-Baker recovers from an ankle injury. Top rusher D'Angelo Roberts missed last week's game with a concussion. Three of Indiana's top three receivers - Damarlo Belcher, Kofi Hughes and Duwyce Wilson - have been playing through nagging injuries, too.
But even if the Hoosiers are at full strength, they still have to eliminate the mistakes.
''We're making strides on that (the defensive) side,'' Wilson said. ''I still think for the standard that we need, short term and long term, it's going to be a tremendous challenge this week and it needs to be a heck of a lot better.''