CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Even though Illinois and No. 19 Washington are both coming off big wins, it is not yet clear how good either team is.
Illinois coach Tim Beckman says it is too early to be sure what the hot start for the Illini (2-0) means. Illinois beat Cincinnati last weekend, taking over the game in a way that quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said the team has not in a long time.
Washington quarterback Keith Price said that his team faces a tough road test Saturday in Chicago after beating Boise State at home. The Huskies have not won on the road outside the Pacific-12 Conference since 2007.
“I don’t know how good we are — I still don’t know,” Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said.
Saturday’s game at Soldier Field should tell both teams a lot more about themselves.
Washington will be the first ranked team Illinois has faced since last season, and the Illini have not exactly enjoyed those match-ups in recent years.
They have lost five straight and 14 of 15 against ranked teams since upsetting Ohio State back in 2007.
The Huskies, meanwhile, will be looking at their first road test of the season, and a long way from home at that.
“It’s hard to do, to win on the road,” quarterback Keith Price said.
Five things to watch Saturday at Soldier Field:
ROAD DOGS: Price is right about the road. The Huskies have not won away from home outside the Pac-12 since a 2007 win at Syracuse. Overall, they are 2-7 in their last nine away from home.
“We’ve obviously had our issues on the road when we’ve gone there,” Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian said. “I think our team understands the way we play at home is exactly the way we want to play when we go on the road.”
So even playing in an NFL venue like Soldier Field — and one with a long history at that — should not concern the Huskies, he said.
“We’ve been preaching ‘Anywhere, anytime, any-one,’ ” Sarkisian said.
BIG STAGE: A game at Soldier Field offers Illinois a bigger stage than it has played on in a while, and a big moment. That win over Cincinnati and the way the team took over that game has the Illini riding a wave of momentum.
“It’s probably been two years,” Scheelhaase said, trying to recall the last time the team really took over a game.
But a game in Chicago is important for off-the-field reasons, too. The school has tried to make the city its own in terms of fans and recruits for years, with, at best, mixed results. Illinois is calling Saturday’s game its Chicago Homecoming.
“It’s a huge opportunity, in our eyes,” linebacker Jonathan Brown said. “I’ve never personally been to Soldier Field. There’s a lot of history behind it.”
HUSKIES ADD A WEAPON: Washington’s offense looked just fine in the 38-6 win over Boise State, rolling up 592 yards. But the Huskies will add another threat with the expected return of tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins.
Seferian-Jenkins, who caught 69 balls for 850 yards and seven touchdowns in 2012, was suspended for the Boise State game after pleading guilty to drunk driving earlier this year. He is also recovering from a broken finger.
Price was 23-31 for 234 yards and two touchdowns without him, but the quarterback is excited to get him back.
SCHEELHAASE AND HIS RECEIVERS: Scheelhaase is off to his best start in his four seasons as a starter at Illinois, throwing for 364 yards a game and six total touchdowns.
Last season, Illinois had almost no serious passing attack. The change, Scheelhaase said, started back in the spring with a commitment to avoid the kind of embarrassment he says the team went through in its 2-10 2012 season.
“I think we’ve established an identity and established things that we’re going to do, and established those in the spring,” Scheelhaase said.
DEFENSIVE IDENTITY: Illinois’ defense turned in a solid game against Cincinnati and has been far better than the unit that gave up 32 points a game in 2012.
But the Huskies’ up-tempo offense is likely to be a tougher test than anything the Illini have seen so far. Washington ran 85 plays against Boise State, 11 more than Cincinnati managed against Illinois.
“It’s kind of what the Pac-12 does, trying to get in a lot of plays,” Beckman said. “Communication is of the essence here.”