For 3rd time in 4 games, Illini football faces powerful offense

The Illinois football team has already faced prolific offenses this season, including the rocket arm of Western Michigan’s Alex Carder and Arizona State’s fast-paced attack.

But the Illini defense said its next opponent, Louisiana Tech, will be the toughest challenge thus far.

During the Bulldogs’ 56-49 victory over Houston on Sept. 8, the two teams combined for 209 plays — a NCAA record for most combined plays run in a regulation game. The game also set a record with 79 first downs. Illinois has 51 first downs in the three games its played this year.

“We know we’re going to have our hands filled,” defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. “We have to do a great job of tackling, wrapping these guys up because they’re really fast and have great balance.”

Tempo is once again the key for Illinois’ defense, and Louisiana Tech figures to be even faster than Arizona State. After the debacle against the Sun Devils, which was filled with miscommunication and missed assignments, defensive tackle Akeem Spence said the team has been working to make adjustments in practice. The Illini have simplified the play calling, using color cards to help get plays in faster. Some of these cards will give the defense the ability to call audibles.

The Illini also have brought in the scout team quarterback, who has been running what Spence called “fastballs” — when the opposing offense tries to run about six plays in a minute.

“It’s going to be a test,” Illinois head coach Tim Beckman said. “The numbers speak for themselves.”

Louisiana Tech has put up more than 50 points in both games it has played this season. It has yet to kick a field goal, and its spread offense doesn’t rely only on throwing the ball either.

The Bulldogs are ninth in the NCAA in rushing with 289 yards per game, so Illinois has made its first priority stopping the run. They feature two freshmen running backs — Tevin King and Kenneth Dixon — who carry the ball equally. There’s also quarterback Colby Cameron, who Spence said has made some throws on tape that he’s never seen a quarterback make.

“Getting off to a good start is critical,” Banks said. “Tackle, make sure that we limit their big plays and taking (the running backs) away. They’ve got (to get) on top of people extremely fast, and they’ve got that thing rolling, and the rest has been history.”

Injury update

The list of injured players is as long as Beckman has ever seen, but the first-year head coach said he did have some players back in practice Wednesday. The good news for Illinois is that it can likely expect to have starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase back for Saturday’s game, as Beckman said “he’s almost 100 percent.”

Starting center Graham Pocic and linebacker Houston Bates did have purple jerseys on during practice, which indicates an injured player, and their status for Saturday’s game is unknown. However, running back Josh Ferguson has participated fully in practice despite missing last week’s game with a concussion. Defensive back Steve Hull seems to still be “a way’s away” from returning, while Supo Sanni has practiced, though his status is still being evaluated.

Recruiting season begins

Beckman didn’t have an opportunity to watch Toledo’s first game of the season Sept. 1 because it was the start of the recruiting season, and Beckman wanted to hit the ground running. He’s already begun to make phone calls, and Illinois coaches made it out to high schools last week. Illinois will also take advantage of the night football game as it will host some recruits.

“We’re full speed,” Beckman said. “In recruiting, you never have a break. It’s go, go, go all the time.”

Jamal can be reached at [email protected] and @JamalCollier.