After a rough game on the road against Washington, the Illinois Fighting Illini are back home as they prepare to take on the Texas State Bobcats. The Bobcats don't have their own SB Nation blog, but they still receive some love from our network. Let's give a warm welcome to Will Butler of Underdog Dynasty as he joins us to answer our questions.
1. Texas State currently sits at 1-1 after a blowout victory over AR-Pine Bluff and 35-21 defeat against Navy. What are your expectations for the rest of the year?
Figuring out just how good or bad this team is is still somewhat difficult given that they've played a godawful UAPB team that would get blown out by anyone in FBS and Navy's triple option attack that Texas State will only (sort of) see once again against Georgia Southern. The Illini with Bill Cubit's spread attack are going to be more representative of what the schedule is going to look like for the rest of the season, so this game should provide a good test for the Bobcats.
My preseason expectations were around 6-6, and then the Sun Belt kind of imploded in out of conference play. The "traditional powers" (if you can call them that) look shaky, and nobody really looks good in the 'Belt at all. Therefore Texas State might have enough talent to slide into a top 3 spot in the conference, a 7-5 or 8-4 finish, and a bowl game if they get a few bounces to go their way. However, the loss of talented linebacker Mike Orakpo to an ACL/MCL tear for the rest of the season might temper those expectations a bit since he was one of the few real pass rush threats Texas State has.
2. What are the Bobcats' strengths on either side of the ball? Do you think they have an advantage over the Illini in these areas?
Texas State has morphed into a bit of a pistol/triple option hybrid under Dennis Franchione and the run game has always been a consistent strength as a result. The Bobcats always have a loaded stable of running backs and often has a quarterback that is rush first, pass second. QB Tyler Jones is a bit of a true dual threat who has a better arm than most of Coach Fran's previous QBs, so the Bobcats have the option to nickel and dime opponents with zone reads, screens, and quick routes until opposing defenses are lured in for a play action bomb. The introduction of the no huddle wrinkle has made for interesting viewing as the Bobcats were able to move the ball at times and tire Navy's defense with that approach, and they utterly picked apart an overmatched UAPB defense that eventually ended up faking injuries to try and slow down the game. The Illini defense appears to be a bit shaky at this point, so I think the Bobcats will be able to move the ball and put up some points, but self-inflicted mistakes like turnovers and penalties will have to be at a minimum if Texas State wants to have a chance at winning.
On the defensive side of the ball the Bobcats have always been better at shutting down the rush than the pass, although that's mainly true against opponents who don't make rushing their entire livelihood (read: Navy). Their new defensive coordinator, John Thompson, is an aggressive playcaller who likes to put his secondary up close to the line and dial in some blitz packages. When they work, the Bobcats have a few players who can make some bone-jarring hits and big plays. When those calls don't work, the Bobcats are prone to giving up a lot of real estate. Given UI's talent at receiver I'm skeptical that Texas State will be able to keep them under 30 or maybe even 40 points.
3. Who are the Bobcats' playmakers on the offensive side of the ball?
Running back Robert Lowe is a workhorse who can make some nice moves and is a threat to crack 100 yards every game. Tyler Jones is a dual threat QB who can make some accurate mid-range throws punctuated by the occasional bomb if the offensive line gives him enough time, and he also has the ability to escape the pocket and make defenders miss on the run. However, he has been prone to staring down receivers and overthrowing wide open players when he lets his nerves get to him, so he needs to work on being more consistent.
Converted running back CJ Best is a receiver who is a big threat on end around plays, and Jafus Gaines is probably Texas State's biggest play threat at WR as he's consistently been finding ways to get open. However Gaines and many of the other wide receivers have had problems with consistently dropping catchable passes. Navy dropped two safeties deep into coverage and the receivers had to try and make plays under the umbrella as a result.
4. Are there any players on the defensive side that Illini fans should look out for?
David Mayo at linebacker is easily the best player on the field for the Bobcats. He can play sideline to sideline and is all over the field flying to the ball on every play, and he'll make some shattering hits to boot. He'll be needed even more now that his pass rush counterpart Orakpo is out for 2014. Karee Berry at defensive end is starting to emerge on a defensive line that lost all its starters in the offseason, but he along with the rest of the line is a work in progress on developing anything resembling a pass rush. Senior cornerback Craig Mager is the leader of a young and shaky secondary; he can stick some hard hits on receivers and backs and occasionally makes some great plays in pass coverage, but he is also guilty of occasionally missing his assignments and giving up big plays. David Mims II, opposite of him, hasn't been tested nearly as much as Mager, but he has looked respectable in pass coverage thus far this year.
5. What's your opinion of Illinois heading into the game? Which players on our side do you view as the biggest threat?
Overall I'd say the Illini look like a team in the bottom half of the Big Ten that is trying to establish a positive trajectory with Bill Cubit's spread attack and Wes Lunt under center. The Illini defense and rushing attack don't appear to be improving as quickly as scheduled. I view the Illini as being in about the same tier as Indiana, Minnesota, and Iowa--teams that aren't going to compete for the Big Ten title anytime soon but have enough weapons to separate themselves from utterly punchless teams like Purdue and Northwestern.
In terms of players that will test the Bobcats, Lunt will be a threat if Texas State can't generate a pass rush and lets him sit apart in the pocket all day to pick apart the secondary, and Illini receiver Geronimo Allison appears to be establishing himself as a consistent receiving threat. Even though he's been struggling, Josh Ferguson at running back is someone who is talented enough to test Texas State's front seven, especially with Orakpo out.
6. What's your prediction for this first ever meeting between the two schools?
If Mike Orakpo was still healthy I'd say the Bobcats might have enough of a shot to generate a pass rush to throw Lunt off guard a bit and potentially cause some timely turnovers, but he's out and David Mayo can't carry the defense by himself. Therefore I think Lunt, Allison, and Mike Dudek are going to get theirs, and it'll be interesting to see if this is the game that Ferguson is able to have a breakout performance out of the backfield.
I think Robert Lowe has a shot to crack 100 yards and get a couple of scores. If Tyler Jones can settle down, his receivers can avoid dropping passes they shouldn't, and the offensive line doesn't get called for holding every other drive--these are all big "ifs," mind you--then we could see a shootout in Champaign. My gut feeling says 41-31, Illini.
Thank you to Will for taking the time to answer our questions! Make sure to check out Underdog Dynasty for more coverage as we approach Saturday's game.