For success, Illini must keep Colburn in check

The final whistle will blow on Illinois’ 2009 football season on Saturday around 2:30 p.m.

The Illini still have 60 minutes of football to play against a gritty Fresno State team, and it remains to be seen which Illinois squad will show up— the one that outgained the high-powered Cincinnati offense or the one that put up a doughnut against the Ohio State Buckeyes.

But if there’s one certainty about Saturday’s game, it’s this: Fresno State quarterback Ryan Colburn will have a big day through the air.

Colburn’s numbers on the season are nothing to write home about. He is averaging a decent 195.5 passing yards per game en route to tossing 16 touchdowns and ten interceptions. So why do I think a middle-of-the-road signal-caller from the WAC is going to explode Saturday at Memorial Stadium?

It’s simple — because the Illini secondary seems to always boost the numbers of opposing quarterbacks.

In Illinois’ season opener, its defense lined up opposite a tall and talented quarterback from Mizzou, Blaine Gabbert, who torched the Illini for 319 yards and three touchdowns. Oh, and I forgot to mention — that was Gabbert’s first career start.

How has he done the rest of the season? He’s been good, averaging 275.2 yards per game in leading the Tigers to an 8-4 record, but not the superstar he looked like against Illinois.

When the Illini played Michigan State on Homecoming, Spartan starting quarterback Kirk Cousins did not even play. But backup Keith Nichol went a solid 13-25 for 179 yards against Illinois’ secondary in easily his best performance of the year. Nichol only appeared in nine games this season and averaged a meager 84.9 yards per contest through the air.

Two other Big Ten quarterbacks also over-performed against Illinois in conference play. Ben Chappell of Indiana finished the year averaging 245 yards per game but went 23-38 for 333 yards and three touchdowns against Illinois, while Northwestern’s Mike Kafka averaged 241.5 passing yards per outing this season but went off for 305 big ones (and a score) against the Illini secondary.

And, of course, who could forget Cincinnati quarterback Tony Pike’s performance last Friday? The senior, and one-time Heisman Candidate, went off for 399 yards (he is averaging 256 on the year) and a career-high six touchdowns against Illinois in making his first start since sustaining an arm injury in mid-October.

So why is the Illini secondary so poor?

Honestly, I have no idea, and could hypothesize all day about an answer without coming up with a definitive one. The unit looks good on paper, with even the backups boasting some crazy athletic ability.

At safety, Garrett Edwards has been one of Illinois’ most consistent performers all season, and senior Donsay Hardeman possesses the type of strength and speed to be a force lining up next to him. One problem might be that Hardeman tends to rely a bit too much on his athleticism, opting to try and deliver big hits on opposing receivers rather than just making the safe tackle, and both have also been juggled in and out of the lineup with injuries. But freshman Walt Aikens has done well in relief.

Illinois’ cornerback situation is also puzzling, although the recent addition of freshman Terry Hawthorne (who has since tallied 27 total tackles, an interception and a defensive touchdown) to the starting lineup has helped. But senior Dere Hicks has not shown the type of consistency expected of a veteran, meanwhile sophomore Tavon Wilson has failed to impress after looking extremely sharp over the summer at Camp Rantoul.

When assessing the matchup in the pregame notes, there’s no reason Colburn should dominate the Illini secondary. Yes, he’s a solid quarterback, but his numbers are hardly spectacular. Then again, did anyone think four average Joes like Gabbert, Nichol, Chappell and Kafka would all have career days passing the ball against the Orange and Blue? I know I didn’t.

So when watching Saturday’s game, you’ll notice that Hawthorne is unquestionably the fastest player on the field. You’ll also notice that Edwards is stronger than any of Fresno State’s wiry receivers and that Walt Aikens is already an amazing physical specimen as a freshman.

But, most importantly, you’ll notice that Colburn will, somehow, always manage to find an open receiver when he needs one.

Peter Zervakis is a junior in Media. He can be reached at [email protected]