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Illinois vs. Middle Tennessee 2015: Game Preview

Can the Fighting Illini rebound from their first loss of the year?

Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

THE WHEN AND WHERE

Game: Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders vs Illinois Fighting Illini (-4.5)

Time: 3:00 PM Central Time - Saturday, September 26th

Place: Memorial Stadium - Champaign, Illinois

TV: ESPNNews - Mike Corey & Rene Ingoglia

THE UNIFORMS

This is cool! I love the white helmets more than anything, but it's gonna be awesome to see the old orange-blue-orange look on the Illini. Let's hope the team can do it justice.

THE INJURY REPORT

No surprises here. I think we're going to see Justin Hardee back against Nebraska. That's not based on any information, it's just a gut feeling. Losing both Tim Clary AND Tyler White to injury is brutal. I mentioned in #AskTCR last week that we might be forced into burning Caleb Reams' redshirt, but it looks like Bill Cubit is willing to trust some walk-ons at FB and TE in the absence of the starters. Nathan Echard, Ainslie Johnson, and Andrew Davis will need to step up their blocking on Saturday.

THE THEM

THE OFFENSE

So far this season, Middle Tennessee State has a 73-14 win over Charlotte and a 70-14 win over Jackson State, both impressive offensive performances. Sandwiched between those two games was a 37-10 loss to Alabama on the road.

I've seen a lot of people talk about a "valiant effort by MTSU to keep this one close on the road". Uhhhh...let's just say that this game isn't as close as you've been lead to believe. Alabama was up 23-3 at halftime and took out a bunch of starters for the entire second half, including Jake Coker.

Regardless of that performance, it's undeniable that MTSU is a pretty darn good non-Power Five team this season. The offense is the better unit of the team. Currently, the Blue Raiders are 7th in the nation in offensive explosiveness per Bill Connelly's (tha gawd) advanced metrics. They're also top-40 in offensive efficiency, so there's really nothing at which the Blue Raiders are bad.

The vast majority of their explosiveness has come from the passing game, while the running game is more methodical. Thus you have the driving philosophy behind head coach Rick Stockstill's up-tempo spread attack-- run to move the ball and set up the deep passing game.

MTSU runs the ball by committe-- senior Jordan Parker and junior Shane Tucker both have 38 carries thus far this season. Parker is the superior runner of the two, averaging 6.2 yards per carry to Tucker's 3 YPC. He's a big play threat, but is more likely to rip off five yard gain after five yard gain in perpetuity. The MTSU offensive line returns a bunch of starters from last season, so defensive line play will be as crucial as ever against the Blue Raiders.

As for that explosive passing offense, it's led by your classic coach's son. Brent Stockstill is a real smart player. Does all the right things. He maybe can't make all the throws, but he's real heady and he's got a lot of grit. Real strong mental game, Stockstill has. Doesn't make dumb mistakes. A real coach's son. You gotta love 'em. Ditka.

Stockstill will be using his grit to throw footballs primarily at a trio of solid receivers. Six-foot-five Terry Pettis was quite over the first two games, but exploded on to the scene against Charlotte. He's the big play threat of the bunch. Ed'Marques Batties and Richie James are the more consitently targeted receivers-- each has over 200 receiving yards and 15 receptions through three games.

THE DEFENSE

MTSU runs a 4-3 defense with a sort-of-hybrid defensive end that stands up on the line of scrimmage. The Blue Raiders have some statistical curiosities within their defense through three games that are worth exploring.

Alabama was able to run up and down the field at over five yards per carry against MTSU, but the Blue Raiders have been exceedingly good at preventing big plays in the running game.

As you might imagine, the statistics show that MTSU allows long rushing drives but doesn't break and allow anything more than that. Opponents have been successful on 45.2 percent of their runs against MTSU, making them the 87th best in the nation in that respect. MTSU is 4th in the country in rushing IsoPPP, or opponent explosiveness in the run game.

That's pretty good, and likely the result of having three senior safeties leading the defensive backfield and stopping runs before they get too far past the first down marker. Quay Watt has a pass break-up and a fumble recovery this year, Kevin Byard, their best safety, has one interception, and Xavier Walker has a pass break-up as well. These three, particularly Byard, will be ball-hawking on Saturday.

MTSU is very aggressive on D, frequently blitzing from all angles. This has resulted in ten forced turnovers through three games, which ties the Blue Raiders for the best in the country (with Miami FL and LSU). Cornerback Jeremy Cutrer, who has three picks on the year as well as a blocked field goal, is a big part of the turnover-creation. There's certainly some luck involved with such a high rate of turnovers, but much of it is due to Stockstill's cojones-laden strategy in the passing game.

Unfortunately, as always, there's a downside to the all-out blitz strategy. MTSU is ranked 116th in the nation against passing plays according to Bill Connelly (tha gawd), and 121st in allowing explosive plays in the passing game. If Cubit can trust Lunt and the protection to hold up long enough to deliver the ball downfield in this game, there could be a touchdown feeding frenzy for the Illini offense.

To summarize, expect blitzes, a turnover or two by the Illini, and a frenetic pace in this game. Illinois will have a couple three-and-outs, but hopefully Josh Ferguson is able to continue his hot streak and break off consistently solid runs that MTSU is willing to allow. Bubble screens should be back in full force against MTSU, as Alabama went to them with great frequency and success two weeks ago.

THE PREDICTION

Illinois 31, Middle Tennessee State 23

I'm not usually one for intangible talk, like whether a team can deal with adversity or get some momentum, but I think it applies in this case. The Illini absolutely cannot let the UNC game, a sub-par performance compounded by bad luck and timing, get into their heads if the team wants to become bowl eligible this season. MTSU is a team that will beat Illinois if the Illini put in a below-average effort. There's a reason Vegas has this spread at 4.5 after it opened at 6.5. People do not believe the Illini can come back from a bad loss in Chapel Hill.

But I think Illinois will win. MTSU gives up explosive plays in the passing game, and you know Bill Cubit is itching to break out some deep balls to Geronimo Allison in this one. Wes Lunt is less turnover prone than the other QBs MTSU has faced this season and there's potential for him to have a massive day. The offensive line appeared to perform at a Big Ten level against UNC, but this defense will provide much more challenging in pass protection.

On defense, MTSU is going to get theirs. This team will put up some points, but Illinois has enough of a talent advantage to overcome that. I'm a bit worried about the play of the defensive backs against UNC, given how many deep balls ended up wide open, but Illinois has done a solid job of ironing out mistakes from week to week thus far. If that continues, and the front seven exerts their physical prowess, MTSU shouldn't be able to get about 28 points. I think that's about how many the Illini will need to win.