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Illinois Football vs Western Illinois 2015: Game Preview

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Fighting Illini Football looks to continue their dominance in the non-conference schedule with a victory over FCS Western Illinois.

Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

THE WHEN AND WHERE

Game: Western Illinois Leathernecks vs. Illinois Fighting Illini (No betting line listed)

Time: 11:00 AM Central Time - Saturday, September 12th

Place: Memorial Stadium - Champaign, Illinois

TV: BTN

THE UNIFORMS

I'm not one to get all that excited about uniforms, but I think this one is going to look great. The white helmets and white pants look fantastic with any color jersey Illinois has.

THE INJURY REPORT

Losing Eric Finney, who led the team with three tackles for loss last week, is tough but not too bad. Co-starter James Crawford should perform admirably in his absence. Jamal Milan's injury is unfortunate, but based on Cubit's comments this week it sounds like Milan could've performed in a big game. Backup center Nick Allegretti will play back-up DT in his absence.

THE THEM

THE OFFENSE

One of the best quarterback-receiver combinations in the FCS (and what would be a pretty good one in FBS) lies in Macomb, Ill. Junior QB Trenton Norvell and Junior WR Lance Lenoir lead an aggressive, up-tempo spread passing attack for the Leathernecks.

While Kent State seemed to be focused on changing tempos at will, and frankly the Golden Flashes never moved the ball consistently enough to show their speed, the Leathernecks are all go, all the time. If they gain positive yardage, they'll be running to the line and attempting to snap the ball within 5-10 seconds.

The base offensive formation for the Leathernecks will appear familiar to you-- Western Illinois likes to come out in the shotgun with one running back and four receivers (one might be a tight end). This is the most frequent formation the Illini use as well. From there, Western Illinois will run any number of quick screens and other short routes to move the ball down the field through the air.

The personnel of this offense is good, but the depth is sub-par. The two aforementioned stars, Norvell and Lenoir, are going to be the best offensive option WIU has this weekend. Lenoir had 10 catches for 124 yards and one touchdown in the Leathernecks' 33-5 win over Eastern Illinois last weekend.

Lenoir is an FBS-level talent, somebody the Illini would love to have out wide right now. He has big play ability because of his speed, though he's not the biggest target (six-foot-flat, 200 lbs). Lenoir also returns punts and kicks-- he had a 71-yard kickoff return and a 42-yard punt return against EIU. Yikes. PUT JEVARIS LITTLE BACK ON THE COVERAGE TEAM.

Norvell was 18-for-35 for 189 yards against EIU, with one TD and one INT. Not great passing statistics, but he was one of the best in the MVFC last season so he shouldn't be judged on one average game. Norvell is a pocket passing quarterback, but that doesn't mean he can't move. He's not really a threat to run, but he's at least more mobile than Wes Lunt. He's not necessarily prone to mistakes, but he will make them from time to time:

You may notice I've yet to mention the Western Illinois running game. That's because, well, it didn't really exist against EIU. Western tried valiantly to establish the run, particularly using a read option/bubble screen packaged play, and finished with 42 of their 79 total plays relying on the ground game. But it's difficult to find a reason to fear this ground game given their production against Eastern.

Starting running back Devon Moore carried 23 times... for 33 yards (1.4 YPC). His longest run was 10 yards. Back-up running back Steve McShane carried 14 times... for 52 yards (3.7 YPC). His longest run was 14 yards. Eastern Illinois, with athletes who are likely not quite as talented as the Fighting Illini, has 13 (!) tackles for loss.

Before piling on the running backs, consider that Western has a relatively inexperienced offensive line this season. This is very good news for Jihad Ward, Dawuane Smoot, Chunky Clements, and Rob Bain. The Illini DL vaporized an experienced Kent State offensive line. What sort of horrors will they perform against WIU?

Lenoir is a problem, and Norvell has the skills to hit him down the field. The Illini secondary will be tested through the air far more than it was against Kent State, and that's probably a good thing with North Carolina coming up next week.

But I don't believe the Illini should be too threatened by this offense. Much of their scoring against EIU came from taking advantage of fantastic field position and turnovers. Western will throw more against Illinois than it did against EIU, but Illinois should be able to create pressure and make Norvell uncomfortable.

The Leathernecks present a bigger challenge than Kent State, but for the first time in a long time I'm confident Illinois has enough defense to stop it.

THE DEFENSE

The Leathernecks run a 4-3 defense, bent on stopping the run and hopefully adjusting to whatever happens after that. Last week, WIU held former Illini running back Devin Church and EIU to 194 yards rushing on 49 (!) carries, good for a 3.2 yards per carry average.

Western was able to come up with 11 tackles for loss of its own in the game, most of them coming from a dominant front seven. The defensive line is the strength of WIU's D. The Leathernecks should be considerably faster to the ball than Kent State was, but they weren't invincible against EIU.

The two primary EIU backs, Jerron Seymour and Devin Church, ran for nearly five yards per carry combined on 18 carries. EIU's quarterback had 13 carries, at an average of around three yards per carry (sacks excluded), but Illinois shouldn't be too concerned about that since Wes Lunt has no plans to carry the football.

With the increased speed and power of the WIU line, one key to the game could be Illinois' ability to run outside the tackles. Rarely did the Illini run behind its interior line last Saturday, choosing instead a variety of tosses, sweeps, and power runs to the outside.

WIU may have enough experience on the defense to stop those running plays-- at the very least it'll be a better test of how good the Illini offensive line is at this point. The key players to watch on the WIU line are DT Gavin Ricketts, DT Kris Harley, and DE Eddy Holtschlag. All three are seniors, started the entirety of the 2014 season, and Harley/Holtschlag combined for this circus interception against EIU:

The pass defense for WIU was excellent on Saturday, holding EIU QB Jalen Whitlow to just 153 yards on 36 passing attempts (4.25 YPA!). The secondary totaled 10 pass break-ups and three interceptions, both outstanding numbers.

But Whitlow is a dual-threat quarterback and clearly not the best passer. He's no Lunt, and the EIU receivers don't have half the talent Illinois will put on the field Saturday. WIU is young and inexperienced at cornerback, with two more experienced safeties.

Expect Illinois to throw short and intermediate routes frequently on Saturday, trying to take advantage of the young corners, many of which are starting their second game ever. Geronimo Allison is, as always, much bigger and more athletic than anybody in this secondary and he could have a big day (especially if he plays more than a half of football).

Illinois will look for one-on-one match-ups deep with Allison, Sam Mays, and Malik Turner. They will look for linebacker mismatches with Desmond Cain, Dionte Taylor, and Marchie Murdock (listed as a starter this week!). Lunt will probably have a good day, if the protection holds up against the solid defensive line. I'd love to see Josh Ferguson out in the slot for this game, especially since running between the tackles could be tough.

Lastly, Illinois will need to find a counter to this play if the Fighting Illini have any hope of winning Saturday's game-- watch out for the formidable bear crawl defense.

I'm not optimistic about Bill Cubit's chances of properly game-planning against that, given how quickly EIU's receiver dove to the ground in fear of the galloping linebacker.

THE PREDICTION

Illinois Fighting Illini 37, Western Illinois 10

Once I got past the initial fear created by a dominant 33-5 win over #25 (FCS) Eastern Illinois, Western Illinois doesn't seem quite so scary. From watching much of their game against EIU, it feels like they won't have the athletes anywhere except on the defensive line (plus Lenoir and Norvell) to pose a major threat to Illinois. I could only see the Illini losing this game if the defense is completely unprepared for the no-huddle's speed, leading to an early deficit. That, or Cubit gets cute and focuses too hard on establishing the running game instead of doing what the Illini do best.

I'm expecting Illinois to have a little bit of trouble on the ground, given WIU's large front, but Lunt and the receivers should move the ball through the air without much difficulty. With evidence that Illinois can finally out-athlete teams from last week's affair, I feel pretty confident in calling this one a double digit victory.

Now watch Illinois lose by 14.

F/+ Projection

Game Spread (Home) Proj. Winner Proj. Margin Win Prob. Pick (Spread)
Western Illinois @ Illinois - Illinois (27.4-6.7) 20.7 88.4% -