Fighting the Illinois Fighting Illini: Previewing the Fresno State Bulldogs

With the rest of the Big Ten done for the regular season and either preparing for bowl games or looking for a new coach (two of the three programs that did not make the postseason have fired their head coach), Illinois will finish its schedule against the Fresno State Bulldogs on Friday night.

The Bulldogs are coming off a narrow home victory against the Idaho Vandals after getting absolutely manhandled by Boise State the week before.

As Illinois learned last season during one of the most ridiculous plays ever to occur in Memorial Stadium, Fresno State is no pushover.

How Fresno State Has Fared This Season

Fresno State started the season with a win against Cincinnati, a victory that looked much more impressive before the Big East proved to be a terrible conference in 2010.

The Bulldogs then dominated Utah State at home before falling at Mississippi.

Fresno State would go on to win four of its next five games to become bowl eligible, with the lone loss coming to a Hawaii team that currently is first in the WAC, a conference that includes the powerful duo of Boise State and Nevada.

Speaking of Boise State and Nevada, the Bulldogs had the misfortune of facing both teams in a two-week span, resulting in two more losses.

Fresno State overcame those losses to pull out a win against Idaho.

The Bulldogs sit at 7-4 and 4th in their conference as they prepare for a rematch against the Illini.

Illinois – Fresno State Series History

Illinois – Fresno State is the most recent series in Illini football.

The two teams have only met once, during last year’s most memorable game in Champaign.

Illini fans have a hard time forgetting the 53-52 loss, which ended with a Fresno State offensive lineman running in a last-second, two-point conversion.

That game set a Memorial Stadium record for most combined points scored.

Illinois is certainly eager to return the favor of a senior day loss for the Bulldogs, but this game presents some unique challenges because of the time change.

The game will start at 9:15 pm central time, which could throw off some of the Illini players who have only played one game that started later than noon all season.

Key Matchups

Illinois Team vs. Time Change

This game is a classic trap game for Illinois.

The Illini have proven this season that they are a good team, and they are favored over the Bulldogs in this matchup.

However, do not underestimate the challenges of playing in a different time zone.

The Illini will have to face Fresno State at 9:15 pm, the latest game of the year by far, and the game is on a Friday.

Earlier this season, Iowa proved how hard it is to win with such a dramatic time change when it took a #9 ranking into Arizona for a night game and was upset by the Wildcats.

Nathan Scheelhaase vs. Fresno State Secondary

Scheelhaase has improved all season and would likely have won the Big Ten freshman of the year award had the conference not voted before he had the chance to play his final game and improve his numbers.

Scheelhaase had a disappointing game by his standards against Northwestern, recording only 40 yards through the air, but that was due to the team’s extraordinary success rushing the ball (the Illini had more than 500 yards rushing).

With Fresno State sure to key in on the run thanks to Illinois’ incredible rushing performance against Northwestern, look for Scheelhaase to try and air out the ball quite a bit.

Illinois’ Defense vs. Fresno State’s Offense

Normally this is a poor choice for a key matchup because the defense always needs to stop the opposing offense.

With that said, this game has a bit more on the line.

Last year, the Illini defense fell apart against Fresno State at home and cost the seniors one last win.

Despite a great offensive performance, the Illini offense could not keep up with the points that its defense allowed.

This year’s defensive unit is markedly improved, but has still had its fair share of struggles (allowing 68 points against Michigan and 38 against a terrible Minnesota team).

The Illinois defense will be seeking some payback against the Bulldogs on Friday night.

Three Players To Watch

Mikel Leshoure

Leshoure should be watched for the rest of the season as he attempts to make his mark on Illinois football history.

Leshoure needs a little more than 300 rushing yards to set an all-time, single-season rushing record for Illinois, and he has two games to do so.

Last season, Leshoure had 184 yards on only 11 carries against Fresno State, so he could take a significant chunk out of that number this week.

AJ Jenkins

Jenkins needs only 81 yards this season to break 700 receiving yards on the season.

That’s not bad for someone who had 123 yards in all of 2009.

Jenkins has become a clear favorite for Scheelhaase, and with the Illini expected to air it out more this game, the receiver has a chance to finish the regular season with a bang.

Derek Dimke

Dimke has had a stellar year thus far, making a conference-best 83% of his field goal attempts and going perfect on extra points.

Thanks to Dimke, Illini fans have forgotten last season, when a simple PAT was hardly a forgone conclusion.

The first-team All Big Ten kicker needs only 2 points to pass 100 for the season, a very impressive mark that has not been seen since the early 90’s.

Alright.

Until tomorrow, and my Illinois-Fresno State prediction.

Tags: AJ Jenkins Anthony Santella Big Ten Boise State Broncos Boise State Football Cincinnati Football Derek Dimke Fresno State Fresno State Football Hawaii Football Ian Thomas Idaho Football Illini Illini Football Illinois Illinois Football Jason Ford Martez Wilson Memorial Stadium Mikel Leshoure Mississippi Football Nathan Scheelhaase Nevada Ron Zook Ron Zook Nathan Scheelhaase Terry Hawthorne University Of Illinois WAC Writing Illini

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