Illinois (1-0) welcomes Western Kentucky (1-0) to Memorial Stadium this Saturday in each team’s second non-conference game. Underdog Dynasty writer Joe Londergan joined us this week to answer some questions about the Hilltoppers and what the Illini can expect in the game.
With new head coach Mike Sanford taking over the program from Jeff Brohm, will WKU be mostly staying the path, or should we expect some big changes from the former WKU assistant? He has spent time at very different programs like Notre Dame, Boise State and Stanford. Will WKU still be the "Air-It-Out team" of old?
It's not exactly the same, but it's not completely different either. The great pass attack is still there, but Sanford stated in his postgame presser on Saturday that he's going to switch things up a bit from week to week to keep opposing teams guessing.
Here's the exact quote: "Schematically, there's a lot of different bullets in the chamber. It will change week to week. We will not look similar formationally and in some of the play calls week to week. What you saw today was a little bit more of a throwback style of offense. It can morph and change into different things."
For example, the running game in the red zone played a bigger part in last week's win over FCS Eastern Kentucky than it does normally. WKU picked up three rushing TDs as opposed to just one passing TD. That being said, Mike White still went 20-of-31 for 264 yards through the air. There's not very many fan bases that would be "disappointed" by that kind of performance.
Defensively, it actually is a bit of a different look from last year as the Tops switched from a 4-3-4 to a 4-2-5 over the summer under new DC Clayton White. The hope is that the extra defensive back will help WKU's pass defense, which wasn't great last season, improve to match up with some of the other pass heavy offenses that they'll face. Time will tell if it works out.
WKU still has the awesome Mike White at QB, but it lost a lot elsewhere on the offense? Do you foresee a drop in offensive production, and how much of one?
In my opinion, yes, the production is going to dip a little bit from last year. The big offensive losses were receivers Taywan Taylor and Nicholas Norris, along with running back Antony Wales and offensive tackle Forrest Lamp. For one, the offensive line is something of a work in progress. They lost three starters to graduation/the NFL including an All-American in Lamp. Plus they moved one of last year's starting guards (Dennis Edwards) to center. So all in all, they have 4 out of their 5 linemen either stepping into a starter role for the very first time or playing a new position. Like all O Lines, they'll get better with time, but them allowing three sacks in week one has me a bit nervous.
It also doesn't help that two of the four running backs that you're going to see for WKU are coming off significant injuries. Those guys are D'Andre Ferby, who had two touchdowns in Week One, and Leon Allen. I am however pretty excited about the young receiver group that White has at his disposal. Lucky Jackson is emerging as White's new favorite target after a great spring and fall, plus a 144 yard receiving game in week one that included a 66-yard score. Another solid young receiver Xavier Lane will make his season debut this week after being suspended along with starting tight end Kyle Fourtenbary and running back Quinton Baker.
Is another conference championship expected this year?
I think it's very possible but it's an extremely close race this year. Louisiana Tech has another good team this year and most of us at UDD expect them to win the C-USA West and earn a berth in the championship game. In the East, WKU's division, the Tops have had incredibly close contests with Middle Tennessee the last few times out and Old Dominion looks pretty promising as well. WKU plays all three of the teams I just mentioned this year, and I think they win two out of three of those games to get back to the championship game against Louisiana Tech. So I think their chances are good, but I'm not overly confident about a third-straight title.
How does it feel for this program who was once one of the worst teams in FBS to be favored against a Big Ten team on the road?
It's a big moment, for sure. It's wild how high the expectations for this program have become considering A.) them being in FBS for such a short time, and B.) how much the support for WKU athletics in general has grown in the past ten or fifteen years. I guess two straight league titles, three straight bowl wins, and the last three head coaches eventually moving on to (Power Five) jobs will do that. Plus, WKU has never beaten a Big Ten team despite coming tantalizingly close in 2014 (Illinois) and 2015 (Indiana). So it means a lot that experts have seen enough from this team in the last few years to think that they'll beat a P5 team by more than a touchdown.
Is Big Red so bad that he's good, or is he genuinely good? I'm very much on the fence.
Big Red is one of my favorite mascots in college sports, simply because it's so weird. Big Red is neither male nor female. Big Red is neither a person nor an animal. Big Red is a mystery wrapped in an enigma.
Plus, I can personally relate to Big Red because it's essentially a big ball of fluff with sweet dance moves, just like me.
Big Red is love. Big Red is life.
Prediction for the game.
I think this one is going to be a really intriguing game. Both defenses have some problems that the opposing offense is going to exploit heavily, which is going to make for at least fifty points combined. My final score prediction is WKU wins 31-24.
Thanks again to Joe Londergan for answering our questions.