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updated: 9/13/2011 11:18 PM

Illini must pay attention to Arizona State's stud linebacker

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  • Missouri quarterback James Franklin is pressured by Arizona State linebacker Vontaze Burfict on Sept. 9. Burfict invades Memorial Stadium as his Sun Devils take on the Illini on Saturday.

      Missouri quarterback James Franklin is pressured by Arizona State linebacker Vontaze Burfict on Sept. 9. Burfict invades Memorial Stadium as his Sun Devils take on the Illini on Saturday.
    Associated Press


Whether you're looking for the next Dick Butkus -- or merely the next Butkus Award winner -- it's imperative to check out No. 22 Arizona State's visit to Illinois on Saturday.

Sun Devils middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict owns a Butkus-esque reputation for destructive hits, which is one reason Lindy's and Blue Ribbon anointed him as the preseason national defensive player of the year.

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He's well on his way to living up to the hype with 4 sacks for 34 yards in Arizona State's first two games.

"(Burfict) looks like their emotional leader," said Illinois coach Ron Zook.

Alas, not always in a positive manner. The 6-foot-3, 250-pound Burfict also owns a reputation for destructive behavior on and off the field.

His greatness and his heinousness have joined forces to make him a bit of a YouTube cult hero. There are highlight (and lowlight) reels to fulfill any football fan's appetite.

It's on undefeated Illinois to figure out how to keep the ultra-aggressive Burfict from blowing up various skill players and burnishing his legend.

"Everybody wants to know where he is and where he's going," Zook said. "Whether we make a special plan or not ... you've got to do the things that you do and the things they give you."

Illinois' veteran offensive line boasts the experience and skills to keep Nathan Scheelhaase intact on passing downs. Running plays could turn into mano-a-mano showdowns between Burfict and 6-foot, 250-pound fullback Jay Prosch.

"I think there's a chance those two might run into each other a couple of times," Zook said.

Trend no friend?:

Illinois has lost its last 10 games against Top 25 opponents. All of the losses have been by at least 10 points.

On the other hand, No. 22 Arizona State represents the first nationally ranked nonconference foe to play at Memorial Stadium since No. 25 Louisville in 2001.

When that Kurt Kittner-led team upset the Cardinals, the Illini got off to their most recent 3-0 start and went on to earn the program's most recent Big Ten title.

While it's not fair to expect this year's team to match the 2001 team's exploits, everyone seems eager to find out this team's capability. The Illini didn't exactly tax themselves against Arkansas State and South Dakota State.

"You want to see where you are," Zook said. "Everybody gets a little more excited. Not that you don't get excited for the other ones -- because you do -- but this one with prime time and national television, all those things, it's an exciting time."

By the numbers:

Illinois and Eastern Michigan are the only Football Bowl Subdivision teams that rank among the top 10 in rushing offense and rushing defense.

The Illini are eighth offensively (283.0 ypg) and sixth defensively (42.5 ypg). Eastern Michigan is better in both categories, but the Eagles have faced two FCS opponents.

Zook up close:

Illinois coach Ron Zook will be featured on this week's edition of BTN's "Step Into My Office" series.

Zook and Glen Ellyn native Mike Hall chat for an hour beginning at 9 p.m.

BTN leads into the show with a condensed version of Illinois' most recent win over a Top 25 team -- the 2007 game at top-ranked Ohio State.

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