The first Illinois football game is less than a week away, and I hope the team is as ready to get started as I am. For the first time since 2006 the Illini will start the season off at home, and they have a pretty solid chance of starting the season off 1-0, another new and exciting venture.
Kickoff is at 2:37 (weird) in the afternoon of Saturday, Sept. 3 and the Illini will be facing Arkansas State. The game will be airing on the Big Ten Network.
The Illini have compiled an all-time record of 74-42-5 in season-openers and are 51-27-4 when opening the season at home. The Illini have also won their last five season-openers at Memorial Stadium dating back to 1997, including a 41-3 win over Arkansas State to start the 1999 season.
There are always some nerves as a new season begins, and this year is no different. The Illini have lost leading rusher Mykel Leshoure and my favorite hunka hunka burning linebacker Martez Wilson. DT Corey Leguit has also gone onto greener NFL pastures.
Not to worry, there will be some familiar faces, starting – of course- with QB Nathan Scheelhaase, who we all hope will pick up where he left off with a bowl win against Baylor in 2010. Last season, Scheelhaase had 13 touchdowns and just one interception over the last seven games. In that Texas Bowl win over Baylor, the redshirt-freshman completed all 13 of his first-half passes for 170 yards and finished the game 18-of-23 for 242 yards, while also rushing for 53 yards and a touchdown.
Illinois is returning six more offensive starters: OL Jeff Allen, OL Hugh Thornton, OL Jack Cornell (split starts with Thornton), OL Graham Pocic, WR A.J Jenkins, FB Jay Prosch, and TE Evan Wilson.
The defense returns six starters: DE Michael Buchanan, DT Akeem Spence, LB Ian Thomas, LB Trulon Henry, CB Justin Green and CB Tavon Wilson. CB Terry Hawthorne also has started six games in his career – five in 2009 and one in 2010 – but was slowed by injuries much of 2010.
Kicker Derek Dimke and long-snapper Zak Pedersen are also coming back for more fun.
The Fighting Illini have eight home games on the schedule in 2011 for the first time in the Memorial Stadium era and first time since 1903, when Illinois played nine home games. The Orange and Blue open with five consecutive home games and six of their first seven contests at Memorial Stadium. The Illini take an all-time record of 247-209-14 at Memorial Stadium into the 2011 campaign.
As for who we’re facing? This will be the third meeting between Illinois and Arkansas State, with the Illini winning the previous two meetings at Memorial Stadium, 41-3 in the 1999 season-opener and 59-7 in 2002.
The Red Wolves were 4-8 overall in 2010 and finished tied for fourth in the Sun Belt with a 4-4 record. ASU
is under the direction of first-year head coach Hugh Freeze, who was ASU’s offensive coordinator in 2010. He was also the high school coach that was featured in “The Blind Side” movie with Sandra Bullock, a nice little trivia nugget for you.
Basically, this is a cake walk opening game, something the Illini have needed in the past to boost their spirits going into a new season. Thankfully that contract against Missouri in St. Louis expired, so the Illini can be like most other teams and start the season off right with a massive win against a subpar team. If they don’t bring home a W, then we’re going to have serious problems for the rest of the season, because at least if you lose your home opener to Missouri you have an excuse. These easier openers are also a great way for Zook to try out some new people and get a feel for who can do what before entering conference play.
Here we go!