Widespread panic crawls across the whole of Illini nation as fans everywhere recalibrate their expectations for Illinois football in 2014.The rivers of Champaign run red with the blood of slaughtered dreams, hopes crushed by the Fighting Illini's brutal loss to the Youngstown State Penguins of the FC-- Wait. Illinois won last week? Oh. Carry on then.
THE WHEN AND WHERE
Time: 11:00 AM Central Time - Saturday, September 6th
Place: Memorial Stadium - Champaign, Illinois
TV: Big Ten Network
Second verse, same as the first:
Last week, we saw former Illini assistant Eric Wolford in his new position as head coach of YSU. This week, former Illini assistant Jeff Brohm (not to be confused with his brother, former NFL QB Brian Brohm) comes back to Memorial Stadium as the head man of Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers are in their first year of a new conference affiliation. They just joined Conference USA after spending their initial FBS years in the Sun Belt (also known as the FUN Belt). WKU wasn't expected to compete for the conference title this season, but expectations have changed after the horrible, terrible, awful, no good things they did to Bowling Green last week.
Offensively, Western Kentucky put up numbers that likely invoked "HIDE ALL WOMEN AND CHILDREN" headlines from Bowling Green newspapers the following morning. Here is a conversation I had with myself as I looked through the stat sheet (I am the one in bold. I am also the one not in bold.):
Quarterback Brandon Doughty: 46-of-56 passing--Okay, that's pretty good. Like 82 percent completed on a lot of pass attempts--for 569 yards--Okay, okay, that's definitely a lot but it's not like he got it into the endzone all that much--and six--Six?--touchdowns. WHAT?!
For those of you who cannot divide three-digit numbers by two-digit numbers in a matter of seconds like I can, Doughty averaged just under 10.2 yards per pass attempt last week. That would be a first down roughly every single time he dropped back to pass. Are you scared yet? We're not done.
In the 59-31 rout of the Falcons, WKU wide receivers Jared Dangerfield (strong candidate for Opponent Name of the Week) and Taywan Taylor combined for 22 catches, 277 receiving yards, and three touchdowns. Anyone who can actually pull off the "Danger is my [first, middle, last] name" joke is scary enough as it is; those ridiculous numbers aren't helping Illini fans' blood pressure.
Lest we forget, the Tops actually ran for a decent amount of yardage (41 carries, 139 yards) as well. Lead running back Leon Allen is in his first year replacing a two-time FBS leader in all-purpose yards, Antonio Andrews. Allen is the latest in an impressive line of WKU running backs and he's not one to sleep on. Given how the Illini defense struggled to stop some basic runs by Youngstown State, you can probably expect to see a solid dose of the WKU run game on Saturday.
All of the amazing statistics of last week aside, there's one clear thing that the Western Kentucky offense thrives on: tempo. I bolded that because it's probably the single most important factor in deciding the outcome of this game. WKU ran 96 plays against Bowling Green, the second-highest in team history and one of the highest totals of the week in college football. This was mostly a product of them running to the line. If you don't hear "tempo" and "hurry up" at least 10-15 times during the broadcast Saturday, the announcers aren't doing their job. The speed of the offense will challenge the depth of the Illini defense-- how they hold up will be a huge part of the end result.
Overall though, you can expect some regression of the Tops on the offensive side of the ball. Regardless of what any fans of the team say, it's nearly impossible to keep up such insane production on a weekly basis. They will slow down against the Illini, the question is merely to what extent Illinois can impose their will as a defense.
Last week, the defensive line was tested against a constant rushing attack and graded out decently. This week will be a much larger test of the new pass rush and the Illini secondary that struggled last season. I believe the WKU offense is a better match-up (just personnel-wise, WKU has much more talent than YSU) for the Illinois defense. JUCOs Carroll Phillips and Jihad Ward will be getting after the quarterback constantly. Even without Kenny Nelson (listed as doubtful) for another week, Illinois should be able to come up with a couple sacks and pressure Doughty. Doughty showed some inconsistency and poor decision-making last season (he finished with an even 14 TDs and 14 INTs) and the Illini will be in business if he shows that again Saturday.
For the second week in a row, the Illini are facing a defense filled with newcomers and question marks. This time around, we have a bit more to go off in the way of statistics. First off, there are a couple key names on the defense you'll want to keep an eye on. Cornerback Cam Thomas is both the most experienced and most talented player on the defense. He's expected to be a middle round draft pick as of now, and played like it last week as he recorded six tackles and kept BG's receivers in front of him for most of the game.
Son of WKU's defensive coordinator, Nick Holt Jr. is the top linebacker for the Hilltoppers. Holt Jr. was all over the field for the Tops last weekend, totaling nine tackles (0.5 tackles for loss) with a pass break-up and a QB hurry to boot. He'll get after the quarterback a bit even from the middle linebacker spot, but mostly he's just a tackle machine. Western Kentucky's defensive line is somewhat experienced, but a bit questionable. Their best man is defensive end Gavin Rocker. Unfortunately, starting Illini right tackle Pat Flavin was hurt this week in practice, and it seems likely that redshirt freshman Christian DiLauro will be in his place. Not great for an offensive line that struggled last week.
In stark contrast to the performance of the offense, the defense actually struggled a decent amount against Bowling Green. BG ran for almost six yards per carry (sack-adjusted) against their front while simultaneously throwing for an solid 8.72 yards per attempt. Illinois should be able to move the ball against this defense. One key match-up in the WKU-BG game was on third down, where the Tops dominated (14-for-18 vs. 4-for-11, respectively). Illinois will need to have more success on early downs than they did last week, whether by the run or the pass. That would allow for easy third down conversions, keeping WKU's offense off the field. I wasn't too worried about the time-of-possession disparity last week, but with the speed of the Western Kentucky offense, Illinois will need to maintain their drives for longer periods of time.
THE NAME OF THE WEEK
Western Kentucky has some incredibly strong candidates for this most prestigious award, but only one man can claim the title: Back-up cornerback Wonderful Terry. Like, come on, man. It just doesn't get any better than that. Wonderful had three tackles in last week's beatdown and you can bet the announcers will have fun with his name on Saturday's broadcast.
THE #FATGUYTOUCHDOWN UPDATE OF THE WEEK
Disappointingly, 305 pound fullback and defensive tackle Jake Howe did not receive carries last week as expected. As a result, the #FATGUYTOUCHDOWN Alert System has been scaled back to #FATCON4 for week two. One can only dream of the possible celebratory dances.
THE FIVE KEY POINTS
1. Prevent big plays. The Illini would've had a much more relaxing time last weekend if not for two huge screen passes that got away from the defense. The WKU offense must rely on simple, quick passes to maintain such a high tempo: that means tackling in the second level will be key on Saturday.
2. Stop with the dumb penalties. Youngstown State got away with some prime field position last week as a result of two kickoffs booted out-of-bounds. That cannot happen again, this week or ever. Additionally, a roughing the passer penalty gifted the Penguins a first down (and eventual points) in week one. Clean these things up and this game could go much more smoothly for the Illini.
3. Win first down. This applies to both the defense and the offense. Stop Leon Allen in the backfield on first down and WKU probably won't try to go to their potent up-tempo attack right away. That gives the defense more time to rest and make proper substitutions. On the offensive side of the ball, Lunt simply can't have as many incomplete passes on first down as he did against YSU. It would be nice to establish the run game a bit, but Illinois' ability to do so has yet to make itself apparent.
4. Maybe use Josh Ferguson? While the ability of the offensive line to run block remains in question, that doesn't mean the Illini shouldn't deploy Fergy everywhere possible. Put him in the slot, let him loose for a few screen passes, just do whatever it takes to get the ball in this man's hands. He looked as explosive as ever when he had the ball against YSU, but he didn't get enough touches to make his usual impact. Make it happen, Cubit.
5. CONTROL THE TEMPO. I really cannot stress this enough. WKU is going to try to run the Illini defense up and down the field and that will destroy even the best defenses. I noticed that Beckman didn't use all of his timeouts last week. Perhaps the situations just didn't call for their utilization, but I certainly wouldn't mind seeing one or two used this week to slow down Brohm's offense, especially in the first half. Let the guys take a breather, it can only help.
Western Kentucky is a team to be scared of, but still one that operates with less talent than Illinois. The Hilltopper defense will be more prone to breakdowns than YSU's last week. There should be a wealth of openings for Lunt to take advantage of this secondary. On the other side, there's just no way WKU's offense delivers the same performance they did last week. They'll put up points, but 700 yards is way out of the realm of possibility. This will be a really nice test for Tim Banks' defense, and I still believe they'll be up to the challenge. I predicted 38-28 Illinois over at my personal blog with friends earlier this week, and something close to that still sounds pretty reasonable.