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Western Kentucky Preview: Talented Hilltoppers will test Lovie Smith’s staff

The Fighting Illini will need to play a cleaner, smarter game to best Western Kentucky under the lights.

NCAA Football: Ball State at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

GAME INFORMATION

Western Kentucky Hilltoppers vs. Illinois Fighting Illini

7:00 p.m. CT

Memorial Stadium, Champaign, Illinois

UNIFORMS

SCHEDULE

PREVIEW

“Before you can love another, you must first love yourself.”

Whoever said that made a nice point about the importance of coming to terms with one’s inadequacies. For Illinois, one of the absolute youngest teams in the country, it’s less about self-esteem and more about self-improvement. Before the Illini can even begin to think about beating the opponent, they must first learn how to beat their own demons.

To wit: Senior leaders Christian DiLauro and James Crawford earned suspensions for team rules violations before the season even started. Chayce Crouch was afforded fewer than three seconds of pocket-time by his offensive line nearly every snap against Ball State, but he also missed wide-open receivers on multiple occasions. Jaylen Dunlap should be leading a practically infantile secondary, but has yet to return from yet another injury.

And those are just the veterans. Add those failings to the understandable struggles of young starters on both sides of the line, as well as in the secondary, and you get a nearly disastrous wet fart against a MAC team that should have been outmatched athletically at every position.

Now the best team in the C-USA comes to town, a team so good it probably would have contended for the MAC title in each of the past three years. Western Kentucky has some new blood to infuse after the departure of their fourth-straight excellent coaching hire, Jeff Brohm, but the talent he left behind is more than enough for the Hilltoppers to be a 7.5-point road favorite over the Illini.

Head coach Mike Sanford’s Fighting Big Reds (2016: 11-3, 7-1) don’t quite have the luster of last year, particularly at the skilled positions. Gone are running back Anthony Wales (over 1,600 yards rushing) and wide receivers Taywan Taylor (now of the Tennesee Titans and my creatively named fantasy football team, “The Fantasy Football Team”) and Nicholas Norris. In their stead will be assemblage of inexperienced football talent that may (hopefully) need more than two games to fully percolate.

The WKU offense is led by senior quarterback and former USF transfer Mike White, who couldn’t replace 2015 Hilltopper QB Brandon Doughty in America’s hearts but still performed quite well. White threw for over 4,300 yards last season at a ludicrous 10.5 yards per attempt. I don’t even think I’ve done that in a video game. He totaled 37 passing touchdowns to just 7 interceptions and simply lit up the C-USA after a tough start to the season.

With last season’s chief passing targets out of the picture, head coach Sanford will probably try to keep it simple against the Illini. Western Kentucky could get plenty of mileage out of quick throws to the sideline against Illinois’ frustratingly deeply-aligned secondary. If the Illini trot out the same bend-but-don’t-break strategy against WKU as against Ball State, White will picking them apart.

What could prevent that is a major step-up in pass rushing prowess on the Illini’s defensive line. Though Isaiah Gay and Bobby Roundtree showed flashes of brilliance in game one, Illinois will need even more from them this week. Western Kentucky returns just one starter at his previous position on the offensive line (LG Brandon Ray). As far as WKU’s weaknesses go offensively, this is likely the most exploitable. Eastern Kentucky worked its way to three sacks last week ­­­­– Illinois should set its goal at four, especially if Crawford returns.

Head coach Sanford reportedly prefers a ball control-oriented, read option-heavy offense per the always-excellent Craig of Illiniboard. If that’s the case, Illinois may have early success stopping the Hilltopper rushing attack. White is not a threat to keep the ball, unlike Riley Neal last week, so Illinois should be able to key in on the inside run game. The standout performances of defensive tackles Tymir Oliver and Jamal Milan provide hope that Illinois can shut down the productive backfield trio of Quinton Baker, Marquez Trigg and D’Andre Ferby.

FCS school Eastern Kentucky held WKU running backs to just 3.4 yards per carry despite a steep talent disadvantage. If Illinois allows any more than one or two big plays in the run game, then something has gone horribly wrong.

Where the Illinois defense has a chance to up the aggression this week, the Illini offense could benefit from a hefty dose of shut-up-and-give-it-to-a-guy-whose-name-starts-with-M. Whether Malik, Mikey or Mike, Illinois absolutely has to do a better job of utilizing its massive skill advantage against Western Kentucky. Unfortunately, the Hilltoppers already have the blueprint to stopping that.

Ball State’s experienced defensive line ran roughshod on the tepid Illini front, and Western Kentucky has seemingly the exact same line, but perhaps even better. Tackle Chris Johnson was part of a defensive unit that boasted the 2nd best run defense in the nation according to Bill Connelly’s S&P+ average. This team was no joke a year ago, and it returns three dynamite starters.

In the passing game, defensive end Derik Overstreet and linebacker Joel Iyiegbuniwe promise to give the Illini fits Saturday night. Expect a minimum of 1.5 sacks from Overstreet, and even more if the Illini stubbornly refuse to move Gabe Megginson inside to the guard spot where he belongs. True freshman Larry Boyd seems like a default pick for the tackle opposite DiLauro on Saturday, but leaving him on that island certainly doesn’t bode well.

If Illinois is going to move the ball against Western Kentucky, they’d be wise to tailor the offense more to its strengths. Chayce Crouch is a superlative runner and a flawed passer – perhaps he should earn more than just one or two designed carries this time around. The Illini could lean on Epstein more in the running game than last week, and execute short passes with Dudek and Turner to let them make plays.

Frankly, it was painful to watch each and every long-developing play fail against Ball State. Once a sufficient short game is established, Illinois should have the opportunity to go big (keep an eye out for Turner especially, in this regard).

If the offensive line holds up even adequately, Illinois has the chance to put up some points and give Western Kentucky a shot. If not, fans might be leaving the stadium by halftime. As it always seems to go, Illinois must first sort through its own issues before exploiting Western Kentucky’s.

We’ll see how much difference a week of Lovie Smith’s coaching makes.

PREDICTION

Western Kentucky’s defense is likely better than Ball State’s, which could make scoring a dicey proposition for the Illini. Given that, and Western Kentucky’s poised starters at the offensive skill positions, I think the Hilltoppers take a heartbreaker in Champaign.

WESTERN KENTUCKY 30, ILLINOIS 24

Follow Matt Silich on Twitter at @msilich2.