Illinois will be playing host to Western Kentucky on September 9th in a night game at Memorial Stadium. While this is an non-conference matchup early in the season, this may be the most important game for the Illini in 2017.
Western Kentucky has won the last two Conference-USA championships, and it picked up 23 victories in the process. The Hilltoppers have done it with an explosive passing attack that can put up video game numbers. WKU led the nation in points per game last season (45.5) and quarterback Mike White threw for over 4,000 yards and 37 touchdowns in his junior season.
The Hilltoppers will have a lot of turnover on offense. They are losing their top RB, top-two WRs, and three all-conference offensive linemen. WKU also lost head coach Jeff Brohm, who left to take the Purdue job. In Brohm’s place, Western Kentucky brought in former Notre Dame OC Mike Sanford. This change could mean we see a less explosive offense out of WKU, but with a QB like Mike White, there is always the chance to put up points on anybody.
On the other side of the ball, WKU had a tremendous rush defense last season, holding opponents to 2.98 yards per carry. They have lost about half of their starters and that statistic can be a bit misleading given how pass happy C-USA is, but it is still impressive.
Given the changes at WKU, and the fact that Illinois is a Big Ten team playing at home, this should be a win for Illinois. When you factor in a great QB in Mike White, and a very young Illini defense, this becomes a 50-50 type of game.
The reason why this may be the most important game for Illinois is the tide can easily swing in WKU’s direction, and they can run off the field with a double-digit victory. If this happened, the result would not be shocking, but many fans will begin to lose faith in Lovie Smith and the future of the Illini program anyways. The optics of a loss to a team from a lesser conference at home can be devastating to a team’s momentum and the hopes of the fan base.
But Illinois can keep that from happening by taking advantage of the inexperienced Hilltoper O-Line on defense and find a way to run the ball effectively and control the tempo of play. If the Illini can do that, they can start off the year with some momentum and hope for the rest of the season.