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3 Breakout Candidates for the Western Illinois Game

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Look for these guys to have a big impact in the night game this coming Saturday.

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

The game against Kent State on Sept. 1 was... disappointing. I, like many of you, was in the stands, and I could not believe there was a 17-3 halftime deficit. Rod Smith did make some excellent halftime adjustments, and AJ Bush powered the team to victory with 190 yards through the air and another 139 on the ground. No quarterback in the Big Ten has done that since JT Barrett in 2014.

Kent State is likely the second worst team on the Fighting Illini’s 2018 schedule. Western Illinois, who competes in the FCS, is first on that list. They come to Champaign this Saturday, and I think Lovie, Rod and Hardy are going to need to make some big changes if they want to surpass the 2-win mark of 2018. Here’s three breakout candidates for the Western Illinois game:

Mike Epstein

Epstein did not have a crazy good first game of the year. AJ Bush took a lot of direct quarterback runs, which is how he led the team in rushing with 139 yards. Reggie Corbin had a great game himself, with 79 yards on the ground and one outstanding 39-yard carry where he tiptoed the sideline heading toward the north end zone. Epstein had just 33 yards on eight carries (4.1 yards per carry), which is a low number considering his early success last year.

In 2017, Epstein had over 300 yards on the ground in just five game, since his season was shortened by injury. He had two rushing touchdowns against Ball State in the opener last year, and 111 rushing yards against Western Kentucky.

If there’s one thing that can be said of Western Illinois’ first game against Montana State (a 26-23 loss for the Leathernecks), it is that its rushing defense seems a bit porous. Montana State only had 81 yards of offense through the air, but the leading rusher had 146 yards on the ground on just 24 carries (six yards per carry). Rod Smith’s running back corps of Corbin, Epstein and Bonner (maybe some Dre Brown, too) will have a day. Look for Rod to go to Mike early to try and get him ready for the Big Ten season.

Sam Mays

Mays had and “OK” game against Kent State. He had four receptions for 47 yards, but what stood out to me was his dropped pass over the middle of the field in the second quarter. Granted, it was an under thrown ball, but those are the types of plays that he needs to make this year.

At 6-foot-3, Mays might be the biggest target on the receiving corps, which makes him a great candidate for some big plays. I noticed more than once in the Kent State game that Rod Smith called on Mays for a quick fade to the end zone that didn’t quite work out for Illinois.

I think it’s pretty likely Mays gets one of those against Western. And since neither of the deep passes from Bush to Smalling or Mays were completed, Rod is gonna make one of those happen this time around. Remember, Western is probably the worst team on the schedule this year. The offense is going to need to take advantage of that.

Especially since someone on the outside (or in the slot) needs to step up now without Mike Dudek.

Bobby Roundtree

I think that Roundtree has the best chance to really get after the quarterback in this game. For the defense, I really would’ve like to pick a guy in the secondary who had a disappointing opener for the breakout candidate against Western, but the top three returners (Bennett Williams, Nate Hobbs and Tony Adams) are all still suspended. So let’s move to the defensive line.

Kent State had a day on the ground last week. Woody Barrett had 18 carries for 117 yards on the ground (to go along with his 270 passing yards). The defensive line didn’t seem to get a lot of great push up front for most of the game, and Barrett took advantage of plenty of quarterback draws. There’s a lot more than defensive line performance at play here, but it was certainly not what most of us were expecting.

Roundtree had three solo and two assisted tackles against the Golden Flashes, but not much else to brag about on the stat sheet. The 6-foot-5 sophomore was great as a freshman last year, and I expect him to build on the 2017 season. He’s going to need to start sooner rather than later. Expect the duo of Roundtree and Jake Hansen to combine for five or more tackles for loss and a pair of sacks against Western Illinois this Saturday.

Other guys to watch on offense (if you don’t already know): Ricky Smalling, AJ Bush

Other guys to watch on defense: Jake Hansen, Isaiah Gay, Jartavius “Quan” Martin

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