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Illinois needs to build momentum against Louisiana Tech

Josh FergusRobert Nelson

Josh Ferguson, Robert Nelson

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The facts: 7, BTN, 560-AM.

Updated: October 23, 2012 6:10AM

It might sound early to talk about a crossroads game. But there are a lot of reasons to think Illinois’ matchup Saturday night against Louisiana Tech will set the tone for coach Tim Beckman’s first season.

For starters, the Illini are expected to welcome back quarterback Nate Scheelhaase (ankle) and tailback Josh Ferguson (concussion). Two other key offensive players, center Graham Pocic (knee) and wide receiver Darius Millines (shoulder), are questionable. Middle linebacker Houston Bates (ankle) also remains murky.

Illinois wants to have all able-bodied hands on deck against a dangerous opponent. Louisiana Tech might not have name recognition, but it has speedy, confident players who have won nine of their last 10 games. The Bulldogs, who have scored 14 touchdowns on their 21 possessions, have averaged 56 points in their first two games, third in the nation in scoring.

“I think they got 101 snaps in against Houston,’’ Beckman said. “Coach [Sonny] Dykes has done a great job. They have a senior-laden football team that’s able to do these things. We’re going to have to respond, keep it as simple as we can and play Illini football.’’

What that means is, the Illini need to avoid the defensive miscommunications that dogged them on the road against Arizona State, which also goes at a fast pace.

“The best way to be successful in the red zone,’’ defensive end Michael Buchanan said, “is to not let them get in.’’

Finally, the schedule could become a slippery slope for a fragile team learning from a new staff. Illinois will put a lot of its goals at risk if it isn’t up to this challenge.

That’s because the start of the Big Ten schedule is going to test Beckman and his players in a big way.

After Louisiana Tech, the Illini conclude a three-game home stretch against Penn State — a toss-up game like this one. Then Illinois will play three of its next four on the road at Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State.

About 291,000 opposing fans are expected at those three games, not a whole lot fewer than the 315,000 the Illini are on pace to draw for their seven-game home schedule.

Camp Randall, the Big House and the Horseshoe are not places for tentative visitors.

That’s why Illinois, which lost its last six regular-season games a year ago, needs to build momentum for the difficult road ahead.

The last two times the Illini have gone 5-7, one victory short of being bowl-eligible, nonconference losses have been instrumental. In 2008, a year after their surprise Rose Bowl appearance, the Illini lost to Western Michigan in Detroit. In 2002, the year after they went to the Sugar Bowl, their 5-7 mark included losses to San Jose State and at Southern Miss.

Illinois doesn’t want to look back later and put Louisiana Tech in that category.

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