DATE OF THE CONTEST: Black Friday, November 27, 2009
VENUE: Nippert (finale of the three-game homestand)
BE IN YOUR SEAT: 12 noon (you don't want to miss Senior Day)
THE SERIES: Starts Friday.
LAST GAMES: UC won 24-21 over West Virginia 11/13; Illinois lost to Northwestern 21-16 on 11/14
These two teams have never played. Actually, at the time this deal was struck, it was believed this game would've been at Paul Brown Stadium to accommodate the crowd a Big Ten school normally commands.
For whatever reason, that deal never transpired, but that's not all bad. UC now gets to say goodbye to their departing seniors at their familiar, beloved Nippert Stadium. And, Nippert has proved to be a decided home field advantage of late for Kelly's 'Cats.
Both teams will be coming in after bye weeks, meaning either both will be rusty, or both will be rested. Or both.
The Bearcats have started Zach Collaros at QB the last four games, but Tony Pike did return against the Mountaineers to throw a couple TD passes. The Illini have the elusive Juice Williams who's been out injured, but lately they have played redshirt freshman Jacob Charest.
The fans of the Fighting Illini normally travel well, but this is a disappointing 3-7 team, so that remains to be seen. Still, it's another sell-out for UC and it's a chance for fans to send off 16 deserving seniors in style.
Naturally, there's the Pitt game and a bowl game yet to go, but Pike, Gilyard, Webster, Jurek, Alli, Revels, Daniels, Waugh, Mathews, Linkenbach, Carey, Young, Windt, Howard, Brad Jones and Ramsey all deserve your finest applause on this day.
Let's see how it all shakes out, shall we?
UC Offense vs. Illinois Defense
The quarterback question will be the big issue again. Tony Pike's scoring passes in the West Virginia game show why he's an important part of the offense. On the other hand, Zach Collaros hasn't done much to warrant being yanked other than the fact that he's an underclassman and this is Senior Day.
I would suspect the hand would tilt toward Pike these last couple of games, and Brian Kelly has confirmed that Pike is "tracking" to be the Senior Day starter. You just never know for sure until gameday as all coaches like to employ their "chess games" up until the last possible minute. The running game's really coming around with Isaiah Pead (175 yards vs. WVU) and Kelly has stressed the importance of being able to run the ball late in the year when conditions sometimes aren't conducive to throwing.
On the other hand, you know the Bearcats are going to throw it repeatedly and no one in the Big 10 really plays this style of offense. Brian Kelly has made note of Illinois DL Clay Nurse, as he's capable of being a disruptive force. However the more balance the Bearcat offense has will make it difficult for guys like Nurse to get to the QB, regardless of who's playing. The Illini have a decent DB in Donsay Hardeman, who recently suffered a neck injury. That could play a part in their pass defense.
NOD: While I think UC would like to get Pike and the passing game working again, I feel like this game could be more about who runs the best. If Pead cuts loose again, it'll open everything up and the Bearcats should be rewarded for their Senior Day efforts.
Illinois Offense vs. UC Defense
Juice Williams is obviously a multi-dimensional QB who's led Illinois to some glorious victories over his career. However, his success has been mixed this year and injury has caused him to miss snaps in favor of Jacob Charest. The injury bug has also struck WR Arrelious Benn. With nearly two weeks off though, I would suspect both would be ready to go. The Illini did show the ability to pound the ball some in their last game with RBs Mikel LeShoure and Jason Ford, both healthy 225-230-pound guys.
This could come into play as UC (while trying to shut down Noel Devine on 11/13) didn't do a great job on the bigger Ryan Clarke who had several impressive bursts. Then there's the issue of the giving up late fourth-quarter points. Both Connecticut and West Virginia staged furious comebacks that kept everyone in their seats at Nippert 'til the very end. Well, don't look now, but behind QB Jacob Charest, the Illini scored a pair of fourth quarter touchdowns to come back on Northwestern (eventually falling short). Based on the last couple of nail-biters, you have to figure Brian Kelly has put a big emphasis on the defense FINISHING games. Overall, this "no-name" bunch of guys have played with a chip on their shoulder all year. While they're deserving of great respect and admiration, I'm all for getting them P.O.'d again!
NOD: Just like UC, the offense of Illinois comes in with some uncertainty at the QB position which is always tough to prepare for. UC can hope that perhaps they're not at their mental best having spent Thanksgiving out of town in a season that's been extremely disappointing.
It seems to be the same story for UC: if Jake Rogers is ON, you're in good shape. He's your kicker and your punter and if he's in a groove, he's as good as anybody. The return game has been strong all year with Mardy Gilyard typically gaining more yards than most in both his punt and kickoff returns. I'm sure on Senior Day, Mardy would like to return one as a "gift" to his many supporters in the student section. The Illini's top receiver (just like UC) is also their top returner in Arrelious Benn. The Illinois kicking game? Not the best in terms of field goals, Matt Eller's been inconsistent and has given way to Derek Dimke, the kickoff guy.
NOD: The obvious Senior Day home field advantage comes into play here. The Bearcats are due to break a return.
THROW IT OUT AND SEE WHERE IT STICKS
This game has some concerns, since in some ways it's not "necessary" to win the Big East. However, it's equally important in my book as a loss would just give the naysayers more ammunition in saying the Big East isn't up to the Big 10's standards. For that reason alone, and for the outside shot of playing in a BCS championship game, I think it's vital for UC to come out inspired and invigorated to get back to the precision machine that was rolling over opponents and spitting them out. At 3-7, Illinois can be upset-minded and they do have talented, scholarship players. They're every bit as talented as any of the teams that UC's hosted here. The key here is jumping out early as it's very easy for a losing team to kick into that "here we go again" mode. It's more national exposure and it's a chance to make another Big East statement. True, the guys aren't fond of the noon kickoffs, but if they look at it in terms of having an "open" Friday night, they might respond.