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Scouting Report: Illinois Fighting Illini vs. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers

While they’re not what they used to be, Illinois has a tough test against the Hilltoppers this weekend.

Marmot Boca Raton Bowl - Memphis v Western Kentucky Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images

Now that everyone has exhaled from Saturday’s nail-biter against the Ball State Cardinals, the Illinois Fighting Illini face the reigning Conference USA champion Hilltoppers of Western Kentucky University. While WKU has proven to be an offensive juggernaut in past years, this year’s team is slightly different that what we’re used to seeing. Let’s take a closer look at Saturday’s opponent:

Last Meeting/Series History

Illinois is (1-0) all-time against the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers.

Last (and only) meeting: In 2014, Illinois won 42-34 at Memorial Stadium.

Western Kentucky is (0-6-0) against teams in the Big Ten. Their last game against a Big Ten opponent was in 2015 against the Indiana Hoosiers (L 35-38).


Strengths

Holy Butkus have they been good offensively the past few years.

WKU can put up points...a LOT of points. Quarterback Mike White is someone we’ve kept an eye on in the pre-season, and last season White threw for Madden-esque numbers:

Mike White Numbers 2016.csv

Completions Attempts Completion % Yards TD Int Efficiency Rating
Completions Attempts Completion % Yards TD Int Efficiency Rating
280 416 67.3% 4363 37 7 181.4
#2 - CUSA #2 - CUSA #1 - CUSA/#8 - NCAA #2 - CUSA/#5 - NCAA #2 - CUSA/#8 - NCAA #7 - CUSA #1 - CUSA/#3 - NCAA

The takeaway here, is that the Hilltoppers can throw the damn ball. White returned to the gridiron this season with PLENTY of playmakers at his disposal, and WKU’s head coach Mike Sanford has shown he is not afraid to share the wealth offensively. Saturday’s game will likely be a slugfest, and that only benefits the Hilltoppers.

Weaknesses

Western Kentucky’s returning production is only about half of what they had.

While the Hilltoppers can hang their offense on Mike White at Quarterback, they need to find some other sources of production on both sides of the football. On offense, WKU no longer has their 1600 yard rusher Anthony Wales returning. D’Andre Ferby and Marquez Trigg shared a similar amount of carries in Western Kentucky’s opener last week, but the two combined for 118 yards on 35 carries. Also, WKU is missing Taywan Taylor and Nicholas Norris at the receiver position. Those two combined for 175 of White’s 280 completions last season totaling 3,063 yards, and 31 touchdowns. With three offensive linemen graduating, that equates to roughly 46% of their offense returning in 2017 (per S&P stats). Consider that Western only out-gained FCS Eastern Kentucky by 19 last week, and there’s proof the offense isn’t what it used to be.


What We’re Concerned About

Western Kentucky’s secondary.

Illinois proved last week they will be looking to run the football to establish the pass this season. While the Hilltoppers have had to replace two defensive linemen and two linebackers, the WKU secondary has brought back three of four players. Senior safety Marcus Ward (starter in 2015) returns after suffering a knee injury last season, and the Hilltoppers have found a replacement for graduating senior Branden Leston. Joe Brown, Leverick Johnson, and De'Andre Simmons are all excellent defensive backs that combined for four interceptions last season. If Illinois has ANY thought that they’ll throw the ball well on Saturday, they’ll find out quickly it will not come easy.

Why We’re Not Worried

The Hilltoppers have hit the “reset” button.

Over the last three seasons of tracking returning production, 29 teams returned an overall returning production rate of 45% or less. Of those 29, 25 teams regressed with 15 teams regressing by more than a touchdown. Western Kentucky has a returning reproduction of 46% this season. Yes, there’s an understanding that Mike White can spin the ball well...but you have to consider that he’s surrounded by new playmakers on offense. You also have to consider that new Head Coach Mike Sanford is a new face in a new system for White and the Hilltoppers. Last week’s performance against Eastern Kentucky did not blow anyone away, that there’s a chance that Sanford’s first road game as Head Coach could be the first bump in his tenure at Western Kentucky.