Here are some matchups to watch out for when Illinois welcomes Ball State to Champaign to open the season this Saturday.
Chayce Crouch’s short passing game vs. Ball State linebackers
Chayce Crouch is known as a runner. He frankly has not had the opportunity to pass much through two seasons at Illinois. Crouch passed the ball just 32 times in four games last year. Ball State has four returning starters on a defense that ranked last in the Mid-American Conference last season in yards allowed per game. In addition, no starting linebackers return from last year’s Cardinals team. The intermediate passing lanes — cross routes, short out routes, slants inside, using tight ends on fake run plays — should all be relatively easy, rhythmic throws for Crouch in the season opener.
Illinois’ inexperienced O-line vs. Ball State’s stout D-line
Arguably, Illinois’ weakest position group is the offensive line. Ball State’s strongest position group is their defensive line, which returns its 2016 leader in sacks, Anthony Winbush. Winbush recorded 8.5 sacks last season, tied for third-highest in the MAC. He recorded two sacks and a recovered fumble against Indiana last year, and it will be up to Illinois’ young offensive line to protect its junior quarterback.
Youth vs. Youth
Ball State has 12 seniors on their 2017 squad; the Illini have just 10 — not including redshirt juniors. Consider on average that most classes have 25 student-athletes per year on their roster, both teams are set to be two of the youngest in FBS. Illinois head coach Lovie Smith and Ball State head coach Mike Neu look to start their second seasons at their programs on a winning note. Both teams are expected to finish last in their divisions — Illinois looking to climb out of the bottom of the Big Ten West and Ball State in the MAC West.