Talk about bad timing.
With the Cal football team coming off a close win against a decent opponent, this Saturday would be ideal for a walkover, a game against Ball State or Rice. Even a weak team from a major conference, say the Big Ten, would be a confidence booster for a team that is still looking to define itself.
Almost any other year, Illinois would be that type of opponent. From 1996 to 1998, they went just 5-28, including an 0-11 season in ’97. They were the major-conference patsy of everyone’s dreams.
Unfortunately for the Bears, they seem to be catching Illinois at the peak of an upswing following an 8-4 record last year, topped off with an appearance in the Micronpc.com Bowl. They have a rising star in quarterback Kurt Kittner, a double threat at tailback and a dominating offensive line to go with outstanding speed on defense. They have blown out their first two opponents 84-19. And none of the experts are giving Cal much of a chance to win the game.
But considering the quality of the teams the Fighting Illini have beaten (Middle Tennessee State and San Diego State) and the strides taken by the Cal offense last week during their 24-21 victory over well-regarded Utah, this game could be an upset in the making. In fact, the Bears somewhat resemble last year’s Illinois squad. Kittner was a sophomore coming off of a disappointing first year after being heavily recruited out of high school. The Illini defense was steeped in tradition and helped the team break out of its losing ways, and the offensive skill players responded to Kittner’s improvement to win five more games than the previous season.
If Boller can imitate Kittner’s quantum leap from struggling freshman to star sophomore, the Bears are capable of a similar turnaround. And it could all start with a victory over a highly-regarded opponent from a major conference, as Illinois did with upset victories over Michigan, Ohio State and Virginia last year.
Boller won’t have an easy time against the Big Ten power, however. The defense is fast, much faster than the Utah defense Boller picked apart last week.
An experienced defensive line will look to pressure him all game long, so Joe Igber and Saleem Muhammed need to hit for some big gains early to ease the pass rush. But if Reed Diehl can’t play, look for the Illini to go after sophomore center Nolan Bluntzer, who would be starting his first game for Cal.
The Cal defense has a no-win situation on its hands. Do they try and stop Kittner, allowing tailbacks Rocky Harvey and Antoineo Harris to run free, or do they stuff the running game and challenge Kittner to beat them?
Harvey and Harris have both rushed for more than 100 yards in each of the first two games. While that type of success isn’t likely against a strong Cal defensive line, they provide a two-headed threat that can take the pressure off of darkhorse Heisman candidate Kittner.
But make no mistake, Kittner is the star and key to the Illini offense. His arm strength has never been questioned, and his reading of defenses has become nearly impeccable, as he threw for 24 touchdowns along with only five interceptions last year.
If Cal’s cornerbacks, Chidi Iwuoma and either Harold Pearson or DeShaun Ward, can lock down on the Illini receivers and make Kittner sit in the pocket, the defensive line will have a chance to sack the immobile quarterback. The linemen must penetrate the very experienced Illinois offensive line that returns all five starters from last season, including Marques Sullivan, whom Carter met at the Playboy pre-season All-American event.