Gameday is almost here at last, and the Illini march into Memorial Stadium looking to secure their 14th straight season-opening victory at home this Saturday. The opponent is the Akron Zips, who were defeated by the Illini 38-7 in 1996 in their only other matchup.
Here’s what the Illini will need to accomplish to emerge with a win on Saturday.
Establish a Consistent Rushing Attack
It’s little secret that Illinois’ running backs are the strong suit of the offense, and they must be used effectively wear out the Zips’ defense. The one-two punch of Reggie Corbin and Mike Epstein will likely be the best running back duo that Akron will face this season, and Rod Smith should try to get them into one-on-one matchups with Akron linebackers and defensive backs as much as possible. The result should look something like the last time the Illini faced a MAC defense during the home opener:
Reggie Corbin on the tightrope pic.twitter.com/dKTJcvVSQg— IllinoisLoyalty (@IllinoisLoyalty) September 1, 2018
Of course, the running backs can only get into one-on-one matchups if the offensive line can do its job effectively. Replacing Nick Allegretti won’t be easy, but Richie Petitbon has spent the past few years perfecting his craft as part of the premier college football program in the country, the Alabama Crimson Tide. He should be ready to take advantage of his opportunity to start for a major conference program, and fill Allegretti’s shoes admirably. The rest of the linemen created gaps last season that gave the Illini one of the most explosive rushing offenses in the country, and they should be counted on to do so again.
To keep Akron from stacking the box against the Illinois rushing attack, as so many opponents last year did, Brandon Peters and Isaiah Williams must be able to keep the Zips secondary and linebackers honest with their passing abilities. This also puts the onus on Ricky Smalling, Trevon Sidney, and Josh Imatorbhebhe to create separation and become threats as receivers.
Contain Kato Nelson
The Zips’ redshirt junior quarterback is a phenomenal athlete, as he passed for about 2,300 yards and 15 touchdowns last season. He is also mobile with the ball in his hands, and could give our young secondary trouble if he gets into space. Nelson was key to Akron’s stunning upset of the future Big Ten West champion Northwestern Wildcats in 2018, as he passed for 277 yards and two touchdowns in the game.
Illinois’ secondary was torched last season in many games, as opposing teams took advantage of the young safeties and cornerbacks who were forced to play often before they were ready. This season, the cornerback duo of Jartavious Martin and Nate Hobbs should be able to limit the ability of Akron’s receivers to get open, but Owen Carney, Isaiah Gay, and Oluwole Betiku Jr. must be able to keep sufficient pressure on the quarterback.
Akron does have other weapons besides Nelson, namely running back Deltron Sands and receiver Andre Williams, but their effectiveness could be significantly limited if Nelson’s passing attack is contained.
We all saw how an athletic quarterback on a MAC team could give our defense fits last season at the hands of Woody Barrett, and I’m hoping Lovie Smith has learned the lessons of that encounter.
Play Disciplined Football
Akron comes into this game with a new head coach, and its players are all adapting to new schemes. As Illini fans, we’re quite familiar with the growing pains associated with this process. On top of the Zips’ learning curve, the first true road game of the season is always challenging for any college football team. These factors will be working against Akron in Saturday’s game, making mistakes almost a near certainty for them. Illinois must show its experience and take advantage of these missteps, while limiting their own.
The Illini had no shortage of drive-killing/extending penalties last season, whether they were ineligible blocker downfield or holding calls on offense, or hands to the face or targeting calls on defense. The Illini are finally an experienced team, with juniors and seniors throughout the depth chart, and they need to use that experience to play fundamentally sound football.
Often the Illini find themselves in Akron’s shoes, playing more talented and experienced opponents in difficult road environments. When I write “what needs to happen” posts for the Illini in those situations, I focus on how Illinois must disrupt their opponents’ rhythm and force them out of their comfort zone. In this case, it’s up to the Illini to showcase the brand of football they want to play, and execute it as flawlessly as possible against a less talented opponent. Doing so should move Illinois into the win column and provide momentum for the road game against UConn.