Illini football faces must-win games if they have any bowl hopes

With their next loss eliminating them from bowl contention for the seventh time in eight seasons, the Illini realize their backs are against the wall.

“This is the biggest game of the season,” sophomore linebacker Ian Thomas said. “From here on out, every game is the biggest week of the season.”

Illinois (1-6, 0-5 Big Ten) will have a chance to snap its seven-game conference losing streak when it hosts Michigan (5-3, 1-3) on Saturday.

“I don’t think there’s any question that this is a major game for us,” Illinois head coach Ron Zook said. “It’ll be an opportyunity for us to get back on track.”

The Illinois offense will be looking to keep up with a Wolverine offensive unit that ranks as the conference’s best.

While the two spread-option attacks are alike schematically, the similarities end there.

Michigan, which finished last in the Big Ten in scoring and total offense last season, now leads the Big Ten with 33.9 points per game and is second with 404.5 yards of total offense per game.

“They’re the same players, but it’s a different psyche and a different attitude than last year,” Zook said. “They’re playing well.”

Contrary to Michigan’s progression has been the regression of the Illinois offense. After finishing third in the conference in scoring offense in 2008, Illinois finds itself last with 16.1 points per game this season.

“We’re still just waiting for things to click,” senior offensive guard Jon Asamoah said.

While Illinois began the season with a four-year starter in senior quarterback Juice Williams, Michigan is one of five teams in the country to start a true freshman at quarterback. Freshman Tate Forcier has taken the majority of snaps under center for the Wolverines, backed up by fellow true freshman Denard Robinson.

Zook said Forcier’s play this season has been beyond that of a true freshman.

“They’re pretty well into it by now, and he’s done a heck of a job for them,” Zook said.

After facing Indiana defensive end Jammie Kirlew and Purdue defensive end Ryan Kerrigan in consecutive weeks, the Illini offense will line up against Michigan’s senior defensive end Brandon Graham, whom Zook called “the real deal.”

“It’s amazing. You keep saying that these guys are as good of defensive ends as we’ve played, and now we come up against (Brandon) Graham,” Zook said. “He plays with great intensity and emotion.”

Graham, who has 5.5 sacks this year, will be going up against an Illinois offensive line that has surrendered 22 sacks on the season, the most in the conference.

“Their defensive line as a whole is impressive,” senior center Eric Block said. “(Graham) causes a lot of trouble for the tackles. He’s a heck of a player, as good of a defensive end as I’ve seen.”

Zook said Illinois’ defense is similar to Michigan’s defense, which has a new look under defensive coordinator Greg Robinson, who was hired in the offseason.

“Defensively, they’re doing a lot of the same things and similar things that we do on defense,” Zook said. “Greg (Robinson) spent a lot of time in the NFL and it’s funny because I see some similar things that we try to get done and we try to do in the defensive end.”

Under Robinson, Michigan switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defensive scheme. The Wolverines often use senior Stevie Brown as a hybrid linebacker/safety, creating what Zook calls “an eight-man front.”

“They do a lot of things differently on defense, bringing a lot of different pressure,” Asamoah said. “This was a week where we have to come in at night to watch even more tape on them. There are some things that I’ve never even seen before, and I’ve played a lot of football games.”

For an Illinois team that ranks last in both scoring offense and scoring defense, Zook said “both sides of the ball are going to have their hands full.”

The key, Zook said, will be playing the way the Illini are capable of.

“I don’t know that there’s anybody that we played this year that if we played the way we’re capable of playing, we wouldn’t have won,” Zook said. “That’s the thing right now. You have to put all that stuff aside. You have to rip the rear-view mirror off and go forward.”