During the September matchup with Western Kentucky, Illini fans caught a glimpse of what Lovie Smith has been building in Champaign. The game featured an Illini defense that generated points off turnovers, a rushing attack that dominated time of possession and special teams that gave the team a chance to win.
Although the defense would struggle getting off the field later against conference foes, the Illini held the Hilltoppers to just 2 of 12 on third down conversions. The defense also secured two takeaways, one of which was the season’s only pick-six at the hands of LB Julian Jones. Freshman DE Bobby Roundtree also showed his potential in this game:
Freshman RB Mike Epstein stole the show on offense with 111 yards rushing and an average of 5.3 yards per carry. Epstein demonstrated an uncanny ability to find holes quickly and juke defenders, even when blocking fell apart around him. He and QB Chayce Crouch led the Illini on the ground, kept the clock moving and allowed the defense to stay off the field. Though we still don’t know who will be calling plays for the Illini next season, we can safely presume that the new OC will similarly emphasize a strong run game.
Special teams also performed admirably against Western Kentucky, as Blake Hayes had an average of 34.7 yards per punt with a long of 52 yards. Chase McLaughlin was perfect on the day with two field goals. The Illini will look to repeat this type of production from its specialists in the future.
The Illini’s second and last victory of the season demonstrates almost exactly how Lovie plans to win in Champaign, and hopefully we’ll see more of it in the future.