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    The 'Cats, the last time out, faced Army's triple option, and on Saturday they'll bump up against the option again when they open their Big Ten season at Illinois. Yet that is where the similarity in those two offenses ends, right there with the word option. "But ironically," says Pat Fitzgerald, "we'll see a little bit of similarity in their (Army's and Illinois') front concepts based on what Illinois runs defensively with three downs."

    That's three down with up to three others filling gaps and presenting looks that are either false or legit, which means the young center Brandon Vitabile will again find himself in an elaborate chess match down in Champaign. The obvious story lines that afternoon will be the return of quarterback Dan Persa and a 'Cat defense looking to reassert itself after getting battered by the Illini rushing attack last November at Wrigley Field.

    But crucial too will be the redshirt freshman's ability to recognize the defense across from him and to make the call that will get him and his line mates into the right blocking scheme. "Especially as certain situations arise in the game, say a third-and-long, they're probably going to bring something like everyone else," picks up Ben Burkett, who is now at guard after starting the last three seasons at center. "They put in a new wrinkle last year that got us a couple times. It's something you expect every week and we're going to have to adapt to it. So I think communication and making the right call off the bat is key."

    This is no easy chore for anyone to master, to say nothing of a freshman in his first Big Ten game, and this was just the crucible the 'Cats accepted when they slid Burkett over and installed Vitabile at center. "But Brandon's handled it real well," says offensive line coach Adam Cushing. "He's grown up with every single snap he's taken. Every play he's on the field he gets a little bit better. He's a very intelligent football player and it helps to have such an experienced guy next to him."

    But won't Illinois' multiple looks be particularly challenging for a freshman?

    "I think it's Big Ten play," counters Cushing. "I think what's going to make it more challenging for Brandon is stepping up against the talent level. More than the defensive structure or anything like that, it's the level of competition. Illinois is a great team."

    "A lot of stuff's different for him, especially now that we're in the Big Ten," echoes Burkett. "The game's going to be a little bit faster for him and the guys are going to be a little bit bigger, a little bit stronger."

    And the Illini looks?

    "They do a good job of lining up in something and bringing something else that's truly different. They bring something that's a little newer. I totally expect them to bring something we haven't seen. But Army, their front was similar to what Illinois does, which probably will make the transition easier for Brandon. Obviously, everything's not the same. Then again, they could do something completely different. So you never know."

    So how can a freshman prepare for both this uncertainty and the increased competition?

    "Just trust what he's doing, trust himself as a football player," says Cushing. "He's starting for a reason. He's the best guy for the job. We believe in him. He has to believe in himself. He does. He's set to go."

    "That's a big thing in our program," Vitabile himself will finally say. "We talk about how everyone has to trust themselves and trust the guy next to you. But I think anybody in general, if you go out there and are going to be nervous and you don't know if you should be there, you're not going to do well. But if you trust that it's your position and that you're there for a reason, it helps knowing you're there for a reason."

    Does he know he's there for a reason?

    "Yes, sir. I feel I earned the spot and that everyone on the line trusts me and I trust myself too."

    * MORE ON THAT ILLINI DEFENSE:
    "They're going to do what they do," says Fitzgerald. "They pressure everybody. They pressured us a year ago. That's their MO, the style that they run. They're going to be aggressive. They'll pick their times when they try to attack your protection, and they're going to pick their times when they stunt you and try and take away your run game. They do a really good job schematically."

    * AS FOR THE 'CAT DEFENSE:
    It gave up 519 net rushing yards and 559 total yards in its team's 21-point loss to the Illini last season at Wrigley. This is why we asked linebacker Bryce McNaul how embarrassing that game was for him and his unit, but he refused to go there. "It's a loss," he said instead. "You take pride in what you do, especially playing college football there's a lot of pride involved, a lot of ego. So any loss is going to hit home and it's always going to be in the back of your head. But I think we've done of good job of putting it in our rear view and focusing in on the task at hand, which this week is Illinois."

    * QUICKLY NOTED:
    Illinois is 4-0 for the first time since 1951, the season it last won a national championship. . . Fitzgerald often says that, for his team to be successful, its defense must get off the field on third down. That could be especially crucial against the Illini, who stand eighth-best in the nation in third-down efficiency after converting 34 of their 60 opportunities (56.7 percent) . . . The 'Cats, by comparison, are 17-of-40 (42 percent) on third-down opportunities . . . The Illini defense has surrendered an average of just 56.5 rushing yards per game, the best in the Big Ten and fifth best in the nation. It also has a conference-best 13 sacks on the year . . . One more stat: the Illinois offense has converted 18 of its 19 red zone opportunities (12 touchdowns, six field goals). . . The triggerman of that offense is quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who has run for 276 yards and thrown for 637 more while completing 71.2 percent of his passes. "He's a great player. He's fun to watch as a fan. I'll be rooting for him every game but this one," Fitzgerald says of him . . . Scheelhaase's favorite receiver is senior A.J. Jenkins, who is averaging seven catches and 91.2 receiving yards per game.

    AND FINALLY:
    Fitzgerald, on opening the Big Ten season: "We kick it off with the added excitement of playing a ranked team on the road, and our rival, you got a lot riding on the game. It's a pretty special first opportunity."

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