The Fighting Illini kick off their 2011 campaign this Saturday against the Arkansas State Red Wolves, and, for the first time in four seasons, will be playing the season-opener in Champaign. Saturday’s affair marks the third meeting between the two teams, with the Illini winning convincingly in both 1999 (41-3) and 2002 (59-7).
Illinois capped off a capricious 2010 season with an impressive victory over Baylor in the Texas Bowl, garnering significant optimism among Illini nation. But the off-season brought the early, albeit expected, departures of Mikel LeShoure, Martez Wilson, and Corey Liegut, leaving ample questions regarding the efficacy of both the running game and defensive unit.
SR RB Jason Ford will be the primary back and receive the bulk of the carries, but Zook and Petrino have both been hesitant to reveal workload percentages for the rest of the running backs. Troy Pollard, Donovann Young, and Josh Ferguson all stand to get touches on Saturday.
The defense returns six starters from the 2010 squad – DT Akeem Spence, DE Michael Buchanan, LB Ian Thomas, LB Trulon Henry, CB Justin Green, and CB Tavon Wilson. A healthy Terry Hawthorne will see significant time at corner and is listed as the top punt-returner on the depth chart.
The Illini, who faced significant transitions coming into the 2010 season, will benefit from increased stability. “Unlike last year, where you had a new offense, a new defense, a new quarterback, six new coaches, it’s been very, very smooth,” said Zook. “We’ve had a great off-season.”
Arkansas State will look to tally their first win against a Big Ten opponent in school history. Led by first-year head coach Hugh Freeze, the Red Wolves return their leading passer, top five rushers, and three of their top four receivers. ASU recorded a 4-8 record last season and is projected to finish toward the bottom of the Sunbelt Conference in 2011.
Some interesting nuggets, courtesy of fightingillini.com:
- Illinois will attempt to appear in back-to-back bowl games for the first time since the 1991-1992 seasons.
- The Illini are 51-27-4 in season-openers at home.
- Illinois will play eight home games this season, the most since playing nine in 1903.
- During the Ron Zook era, Illinois leads the Big Ten in rushing (205.2 ypg over the previous six seasons).
- Among returning quarterbacks, Nathan Scheelhaase is the nation’s third leading rusher (67 ypg).
- The 2010 Illini broke school records for points in a season (423) and points per game (32.53).
- Illinois ranked third in the nation in red-zone scoring percentage, converting 49 of its 52 trips inside the 20 (34 touchdowns, 15 field goals).
- Zook is only the fourth coach to post road victories at Ohio State, at Michigan, and at Penn State in a career.
If you’re in the Champaign area, there are a ton of tickets still available. If not, you can catch the action on BTN. Kickoff: 2:30 pm CT.
Prediction: Illinois 44, Arkansas State 20