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Illinois vs. Western Michigan 2016: Can Wes Lunt, Fighting Illini rebound from first loss?

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The Broncos will enter Champaign with an undefeated 2-0 record.

Once upon a time, Western Michigan’s P.J. Fleck was one of the most highly-mentioned names for Illinois football’s open head coaching position. Josh Whitman clearly had other ideas, though, as he swiftly hired Lovie Smith upon taking over the athletic department. Fast-forward about six months, and the Broncos are entering Champaign as a slim 1.5-point favorite over the Fighting Illini.

That’s probably the right designation, too. Western Michigan upended Northwestern in the season opener, and they hung 70 points on NC Central (FCS) last Saturday. Illinois, on the other hand, is looking to rebound from a bad 48-23 loss to North Carolina, which also happened to be their first defeat of the Fall.

Although it’s only the third week of the season, a loss on Saturday could be disastrous for Illinois’ bowl game hopes because, statistically, the Orange and Blue are only favored in two other games (Purdue, @ Rutgers). And even putting those advanced metrics aside, this senior class has only won six Big Ten games during their careers; Lovie Smith or not, what are the odds of them stringing together five over the course of a few months?

Before taking a closer look at the Broncos, here are some quick hits for Illinois fans.

Game Day Information for Fans

Illinois Fighting Illini Uniforms

The team captains have opted for White helmets, Blue jerseys, and White pants for Saturday’s game. There’ll surely be some gripes about not wearing any Orange — and I get that — but this is one of my favorite combinations since the 2014 rebranding.


Western Michigan Broncos Scouting Report

Record: 2-0 | Second-order wins (diff.): 1.3 (-0.7) | S&P+ Rk: 62
Date Opponent Opp. S&P+ Rk Score W-L Win
Expectancy
Adj. Scoring
Margin
Percentile
Performance
Off.
Percentile
Def.
Percentile
4-Sep at Northwestern 59 22-21 W 31% -5.0 24% 76% 24%
10-Sep NC Central N/A 70-21 W 99% 23.2 39% 86% 6%

Western Michigan is a very solid team. But that shouldn’t exactly come as a surprise given their recent success on and off the field. Take a look at this excerpt from SB Nation’s 2016 Western Michigan preview.

[Western Michigan’s] recruiting rankings are barely below that of Illinois or Purdue and within earshot of Iowa or Minnesota, and in 2015, WMU's on-field product (No. 53 in S&P+) was better than that of Indiana (60), Illinois (61), Maryland (65), and Purdue (86). Hell, the Broncos graded out better than 10-win Northwestern (56). That's nearly half the Big Ten. And again, Fleck's recruiting classes have barely had time to mature.

P.J. Fleck’s Broncos are currently ranked No. 62 in the S&P+ rankings, which is two spots ahead of the Fighting Illini. And while the numbers are obviously a bit skewed from a recent 70-21 victory, Western Michigan features the nation’s No. 29 offense on the back of 46.0 points per game. The passing attack is led by four-year starter Zach Terrell, who has so far completed 70.7% of his passes for 473 yards and 5 touchdowns. His No. 1 playmaker is Wheaton, IL native Corey Davis; the 6-foot-3 senior is targeted on 30.5% of passes, and he’s on pace to get 1,400ish yards for the third-straight season.

There are 128 Division-I college football teams, and Western Michigan’s defense checks in at No. 122 in S&P+ rankings. To put that into perspective, the unit allowed 6.02 yards per play against a terrible Northwestern offense. Illini Board has already put together a pretty comprehensive look at the Broncos’ defensive strategy so I’d definitely recommend checking that out prior to kickoff.

TCR Prediction: Illinois 34, Western Michigan 28

FSH Projection: Illinois 33.4, Western Michigan 31.0 (58% W)