The Fighting Illini may be just the next step for Arizona State football as the Sun Devils work their way through a schedule they hope will lead to a bowl game.
But tomorrow’s game is also a chance to stumble early. The game with Illinois could be the most dangerous so far for a team enjoying a national ranking for the first time in awhile – and coming off a heady overtime win against another ranked opponent, Missouri, in the first ‘black-out’ game in Tempe.
If their heads are in the clouds, it will be easy to trip on that next step.
Illinois comes into the game unranked and pretty much operating below the radar. They’re an easy team to underestimate, or to look past in anticipation of ASU’s next game with Pac-12 foe, USC.
The two Pac-12 rivals have been projected by most analysts to be sitting atop the South Division in the conference standings when the season is over. USC is generally expected to be in the No. 1 spot, so their head-to-head match-up on the 24th is an opportunity to grab the advantage in a home contest.
They have to be thinking about that game. Which makes tomorrow’s game against a Big Ten team seem less significant.
And that often translates to a big Oops!
The Sun Devils are riding high, coming off an opening blow-out against Northern Arizona and then a heart-stopping 37-30 overtime win against Mizzou, which was ranked No. 21 going into the game.
The Missouri game resonated even more deeply with those players who were around last year, when ASU lost a number of really close games, the difference between a great record and an eventual 6-6 finish. They had to feel like a curse had been lifted.
But, a little dose of reality is needed here.
ASU played a great game against Missouri. Junior QB Brock Osweiler was impressive in just the fourth start of his college career, completing 24 of 32 pass for 353 yards and three TDs. He was also accurate, going the full game without an interception.
And he had plenty of quality targets, as Aaron Pflugrad and Jamal Miles each caught a couple of touchdown passes. Pflugrad, a redshirt senior, has had two TD catches in both games so far, and finished with 180 yards last week.
However, the defense was another story. Vontaze Burfict & Co. allowed the Tigers to accumulate just a shade over 500 yards while putting 30 points on the board. And they were plagued with penalties.
And, to put that into even sharper perspective… Missouri was without a couple of its top running backs. Heck, they were down to just one tailback, when they had started the season with five.
The Tigers were also putting all their chips on a sophomore signal caller, who was functioning behind an offensive line that had been pretty much cobbled together.
Now, consider Illinois. The Illini have a full head of steam against an opponent that will have to play in the hostile environment of Memorial Stadium. They have won their first two games by a collective score of 89-18, albeit against lesser talent (Arkansas State, South Dakota State).
But momentum is still momentum.
They, too, will have a sophomore quarterback under center. But Nathan Scheelhaase has a 192.25 passing efficiency and is ranked eighth in the nation at doing his job.
And, when he’s not passing tomorrow, he’ll be handing off to a five-foot, eight-inch quicksilver running back named Troy Pollard who was one of seven rushers in the Big Ten last week who eclipsed 100 yards.
They’re no slouch on defense, either. They held the South Dakota State offense to just 96 yards of total offense last week.
Neither ASU, nor its head coach, have had much trouble with the Illini in the past. The Sun Devils have won both meetings and Dennis Erickson beat them the only time he has been on the sidelines against Illinois, a 44-7 romp over the Big Ten school when he was head coach at Washington State in 1988.
But this year, Illinois has been quietly getting the job done, averaging 44.5 points per game and almost 500 yards of total offense per outing – which is the best in the Big Ten this season. They lead the nation in third-down efficiency.
They’re out there… waiting in the weeds for the Sun Devils. ASU needs to watch its step tomorrow night in Champaign.
(Photo: ASU Athletics)