Real Test on Deck
Houston Bates

Posted Sep 14, 2013


The Illini ready for No. 19 Washington in an early season big-stage matchup in Chicago's Soldier Field.

Before he knew that Washington would come out and look dominant in its season opener, coach Steve Sarkisian wanted an early break.

It certainly doesn't look like the No. 19 Huskies will get much of a breather against a quickly improving Illinois team Saturday at Chicago's Soldier Field.

Sarkisian wanted Washington to have an early bye week after its opener against Boise State in order to take stock of how his team looked. He wanted a chance to assess and correct, almost in the way the NFL uses the preseason.

"You go through training camp and you go against yourself the whole time and sometimes you think things look better than they are. Sometimes things that you thought were a weakness show up in the game and are better than you thought, too," Sarkisian said Monday. "For us it was about re-assessing our team after that game and then focusing on areas of our team that one, weren't as good as we thought they were, and two, starting to build upon some things that became a real positive for us that maybe we didn't know that because we went against an opponent. So I love that."

Little did Sarkisian know that the concern wouldn't be how the Huskies operated, but whether they could keep the momentum from a dominant 38-6 victory going forward heading into Saturday's game against the Fighting Illini. A week after Illinois had trouble with FCS opponent Southern Illinois while winning its opener 42-34, the Illini ripped favored Cincinnati 45-17 while racking up 522 yards of offense.

"No one really gives us a chance, which is nothing new here," Illinois linebacker Jonathan Brown said. "It's been that way almost all of my four years here and it's something we work hard every day to try and change."

Illinois will have a week off after playing its first game at Soldier Field since 1994, but for Sarkisian, the bye after Washington's opener worked perfectly. The Huskies were able to correct issues that arose with their faster offense in the opener and focus on problems with their tackling. Sarkisian was prepared for the bye week to be a slog of keeping players focused after all the attention the Huskies received for their impressive opening statement.

"I was prepared for it to be difficult to get our guys ready and keep our guys fired up and going," Sarkisian said. "They watched the game Saturday morning, too. They know Illinois is good as well. They know it's going to take a really good week of preparation, mentally, physically and emotionally to go on the road and play the way we're capable of playing."

Washington debuted in the AP Top 25 at No. 20 after the win over Boise State and moved up one spot this week. It marks the first time the Huskies have been ranked in consecutive weeks since early in the 2003 season.

The Huskies also spent last week welcoming back possibly their biggest offensive threat. Tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins was suspended for the opener against Boise State after pleading guilty to a DUI charge in the offseason. Even without Seferian-Jenkins roaming the middle of the field, the Huskies managed to roll up 592 yards on the Broncos defense.

Seferian-Jenkins spent last week getting his conditioning in line with the rest of the Huskies offense in the hopes they can play even faster against Illinois.

"He'll have a significant role in this game plan. He'll have opportunities to catch the ball, whether it's short, intermediate or long, he'll have opportunities to have an effect in the run game," Sarkisian said. "We're glad to have him back. I think he makes us a better football team."

Tackling was Sarkisian's biggest defensive concern coming out of the opener. While it didn't show as much in the pass game as Washington did a solid job of not letting Boise State turn short passes into big gains, Broncos running back Jay Ajayi was able to get a significant chunk of yards after first contact. Sarkisian said the emphasis will be tested by Illinois' skill players.

"We're vastly improved," Sarkisian said. "I'm excited to watch our guys go out and tackle on Saturday and we're going to need to. Illinois has plenty of players that can make you miss and make big plays."

Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has made plenty in the early going. After throwing four touchdown passes in 10 games last season and averaging 5.5 yards per pass, the senior has six TDs in 2013 while throwing for nearly a first down (9.97 yards) on every attempt.

"He's so intelligent. For me, it's just a pleasure to watch him go out there and have fun," new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said. "For a guy who's been a little bit maligned around here, you know, right now I think he's leading the Big Ten in passing."

Scheelhaase's 364 yards a game and 74 percent completion percentage are both best in the conference, but those numbers wouldn't be possible without Cubit's new offense. Cubit was the head coach at Western Michigan the past eight seasons, and those teams featured plenty of no-huddle, spread looks.

He said the Illini used as many as 20 different formations in the win over Cincinnati.

"Bill is an outstanding offensive mind, there's no question," Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. "And in my opinion, that's why I brought him here. He's the best that I've been coaching against or been around."

Washington leads the series with Illinois 5-4, with the programs last meeting in 1972.


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