CHAMPAIGN, Ill. | Next weekend at Nebraska, Illinois will run into a bunch of firsts that could tell the Illini whether this year's 2-1 team is better than last year's that started with the same record.
That game will be Illinois' first true road game, its first Big Ten game of the season and its first shot at putting the bad memory of a winless 2012 conference schedule in the past.
But first, there's the matter of Miami (Ohio) today at home. The Redhawks are 0-3 and, to hear defensive end Tim Kynard tell it, exactly the kind of team the Illini had trouble taking seriously enough in 2012.
"We downgraded them," he said of teams the Illini were favored to beat. "This year we're giving everybody respect, not downgrading teams or the players."
The Illini learned their lesson the hard way. After the 2-1 start, they dropped nine in a row.
Miami has scored just 21 points so far. The Redhawks' 448 yards of offense would make a good afternoon for most teams. And they sound just a little awed by the Illini, the thirds-straight BCS team the MAC school will face.
"They are just huge on offense — I don't know if they have a guy under 6-5," coach Don Treadwell said, going to on to assess Illinois' receivers, a deep group that's specializing in catches of 20 yards or more. "They look like an All- American track team. I have not seen them not run by a team yet."
Things to watch today:
CAN ILLINOIS GO 3-1?: A year ago, the Illini were 2-1 heading into a game against Louisiana Tech that they were expected to win, albeit not by much. The 52-24 loss started the ball rolling downhill toward a 2-10 finish. At least as far as the record goes, Illinois finds itself in exactly the same spot this week. But quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and others say this year's 2-1 team isn't like last year's. "We have more identity, and I think we have more interest and comfort with what we're all about," he said. "And I don't think necessarily we felt that last year."
TACKLING: If you asked Illinois coaches and defensive players this week what they worked in the two weeks since the team last played, you probably got the same one-word answer: tackling. The Illini pinned many of their problems in their last game, a 34-24 loss to Washington — and the 600-plus yards they gave up — on bad tackling. So big chunks of the past two weeks were spent on wrapping up and dropping ball carriers. Nothing fancy, just the basics.
MIAMI'S MODEST IMPROVEMMENT: Miami's 0-3 start isn't what Treadwell had in mind for his third season at his alma mater. But he says there are signs — small ones — that the Redhawks are getting better. He saw one in holding Cincinnati scoreless for most of last week's 14-0 loss. And in even being able to move the ball for 87 yards — the Redhawks' total production for the day. Miami is dead last in offense in the Football Bowl Subdivision at 149.3 yards a game and 120th — three teams are worse — in total defense, giving up 545 a game.
"Two weeks ago at (Kentucky), we were struggling really to make a first down," he said, talking about Miami's 41-7 loss. "So at least we're making improvement in terms of being able to put a few big plays up and being able to move the ball at times."
REDHAWKS' BEST WEAPON: Punter Zac Murphy has the best average in the country, 49.8 yards a kick. Six of his 28 punts — that's more than nine punts a game, by the way — have landed inside the opponents' 20-yard line. Five have been touchbacks. That long punt? Eighty-four yards against Cincinnati.
ILLINOIS IN THE RED: Illinois' offense is greatly improved over last season. But the Illini still aren't scoring the way they'd like or, with a defense giving up 492.7 yards and 28.3 points a game, will likely need to. Illinois is averaging 37 points a game, but in three games the Illini have only reached the red zone 11 times, 3.7 a game. The Illini have scored touchdowns in six of their trips and tried five field goals, making three. "It's probably the most disappointing thing right now, not scoring enough touchdowns," offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said. "I've got to do a little better job of game planning."