Listen, this game is a big deal because they've given it a name and actually made a video for it. That's how you know shit is real. It's also a big game because it's being played at Soldier Field in Chicago, and playing well in Chicago would be a good thing for the program.
I mean, look at how things have done nothing but trend up since we beat the crap out of Northwestern at Wrigley Field.
What this game will not be is easy, as the Washington Huskies are a good team from a good conference. It should be a very interesting matchup.
Name: Washington Huskies
From: Seattle, Washington
2012 Record: 7-6 (5-4)
Returning Starters: Ten offense, eight defense, both specialists
This is an important season for Steve Sarkisian. It's his fifth year at the school, and in his first four years the Huskies have gone 26-25 and three straight bowl appearances. However, that's not quite the return to glory Washington was hoping for when it hired Sarkisian away from Pac-12 rival USC.
This year, though, is the year he may need to show marked improvement. The Huskies have never won more than seven games in a season under Sarkisian, but with ten starters returning on offense and eight on defense, if Washington doesn't show marked improvement this season it's possible Sark could be shown the door.
History With Illinois
While most of you probably aren't aware of it, this will actually be the tenth time that the Illini have met the Huskies. It's just the last meeting was in 1972. Washington has won five of the nine meetings.
Of course, the one meeting Illini fans may already know of came in the 1964 Rose Bowl when the Illini beat the Huskies 17-7. That win would help the Illini finish the season 7-1-1 and ranked #3 in the AP Poll and #4 in the Coaches Poll. It's also the last Rose Bowl the Illini won (they're 0-2 since).
And look! Video evidence!
What Do We Know About The Offense?
Washington runs a pro-style offense that's incredibly balanced. Last season the Huskies ran the ball 466 times and dropped back to pass 476 times. However the offense seemed to take a step back last season as Washington went from averaging 33.4 points per game in 2011 to only 24.0 points per game in 2012. It'd be nice if that trend continues, but I'm not sure it will.
Quarterback Keith Price did not have a great season last year, but he's a senior now and he has plenty of talent. He also has a couple of good weapons around him in running back Bishop Sankey (1,491 yards, 16 TDs last year), receiver Kasen Williams (77 catches, 878 yards, six TDs) and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins (69 catches, 850 yards, seven touchdowns). In fact, Seferian-Jenkins is one of the best tight ends in the country.
However, the Illini could catch a big break in this game. Both Kasen Williams and Austin Seferian-Jenkins got into some league trouble this offseason and they have suspensions coming. This is Washington's second game of the season. So there's a chance two of Washington's biggest threats on offense won't be available in this game, and honestly, I'd be just fine with that.
How About The Defense?
Unlike the offense, the defense finally showed some improvement last season. The unit went from allowing 35.9 points per game in 2011 to giving up only 24.2 points per game in 2012. They also allowed a full yard less per play, which is a significant improvement. This year the unit returns eight starters including a young and impressive linebacker corps.
Last season the freshman linebacker duo of Travis Feeney and Shaq Thompson combined for 150 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, six sacks and five interceptions. Those two alone were a major reason for the defensive improvement. Also back are defensive ends Andre Hudson and Josh Shirley who both had 6.5 sacks as sophomores last season. This is an improving unit that should only get better in 2013.
Who On This Team Should I Be Aware Of?
I've already mentioned Austin Seferian-Jenkins, and I do think he's the best player on the team, but just in case he can't go I think I'll go with Bishop Sankey. The Illinois run defense wasn't exactly stellar last season and Sankey is the kind of player who can prove to be a nightmare for the Illini in Chicago this September.
Stopping him would go a long way toward stopping Washington.
Can The Illini Win This Game?
Yes, they can. I know we have a tendency to treat Washington like a team that's really good, but this is a team that has gone 7-6 the last three seasons. It's not a juggernaut, and the Illini tendency to hype them up has more to do with our own 2-10 season than Washington itself.
In 2010 and 2011 this team was no better than the Illini.
It's also important to remember that Washington is the team making the trip all the way from Seattle to Chicago and could have some major players suspended. So while I'm not going to sit here and say the Illini should be favored in this game, a win would not be the craziest thing I've ever seen.