I feel for Mike Ekeler and Doug Mallory.
I certainly wouldn’t want to be a co-defensive coordinator for IU this week. If Ekeler and Mallory are doing their homework on Illinois, they probably haven’t slept a wink all week. There’s that much work to do.
Yes, the Hoosier defense looked pretty good against Penn State last week. Shoot, the Hoosiers held Penn State to 16 points. That doesn’t happen every day.
But Illinois is an entirely different challenge. Penn State had Rob Bolden and Matt McGloin. Illinois has Nathan Scheelhaase. Comparing McGloin to Scheelhaase is like comparing Rex Grossman to Aaron Rodgers.
On paper, this is a terrible matchup. With the pass rush the Hoosiers have been getting, Scheelhaase will have plenty of time to sit in the pocket and find A.J. Jenkins down the field. It could get ugly in a hurry.
“I feel like he’s a lot more efficient as a quarterback compared to Penn State,” sophomore cornerback Greg Heban said. “He’s definitely got the athletic ability to threaten us with the pass and run. He’s a great quarterback.”
Which is why the Hoosiers should take that paper and burn it. Let Scheelhaase and the Illini expect to see the defense they’ve seen on tape and then surprise them with something completely different.
Bring all of the linebackers up to the line on some plays. Blitz a safety here and there. Drop a defensive end into coverage.
It doesn’t matter what the Hoosiers do as long as they show Scheelhaase something they haven’t shown anybody else.
That’s the only way they can compete. Ekeler and Mallory can share their expertise with the players. They can coach them up all they want, but that only goes so far. Ultimately, the players have to go out there and play (genius, right?), and these players don’t stack up well against the Illinois offense.
“We’re going to probably throw in some new wrinkles and blitzes and packages, but that’s nothing new,” senior linebacker Jeff Thomas said. “We constantly battle with our own mental mistakes and our own errors. If we play our own defense, and come into our own and find our identity, then we don’t need to bring anything else in.”
This defense doesn’t have an identity because it isn’t great in any one area. The Hoosiers are much better at stopping the run than they are the pass, but I wouldn’t exactly call the unit a run-stopping defense. It isn’t there yet, and I doubt it’s going to find an identity on Saturday.
If Ekeler and Mallory throw the same defense at Illinois that they did against Penn State, the Hoosiers won’t win. Even if they do mix it up and show some confusing packages, the Illini might still dominate on offense. It might even be worse because of the potential for the big play — including in the running game.
“You would get concerned with which coverages, blitzes, looks you can do, because the threat of the quarterback run is one more animal to defend on the field and kind of limits us there,” IU Coach Kevin Wilson said.
But that’s a risk IU must be willing to take.
Against this opponent and this quarterback, there’s no other option.
Scheelhaase and the Illini are certainly the darlings of the Big Ten — and maybe even the country — this year. This matchup simply doesn’t favor the Hoosiers, and it could be their first blowout loss of the season.
IU will hang in for a bit, but the Illini will ultimately be too much. Watch for the Scheelhaase to Jenkins combination all afternoon.
Illinois 34, IU 17