CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The Illini want to build on the success of their opening week, proving that it was much more than their usual first game of the season win.
As a program, Illinois Football is moving on from the past and is over all of the naysayers that doubt their success for this season.
When asked how they don’t let the past affect them, linebacker Jake Hansen said, “During the offseason I think we did look at last year, we looked at it as, that can never happen again. Moving forward we try to focus on what we can do and the potential we have for this year.”
Considering their next two games are against low-ranked teams, the Illini have the ability to be 3-0 before playing their first Big Ten team of the season against Nebraska.
To put it nicely, The University of Connecticut is a very beatable team. The Huskies 2018 record was 1-11, they didn’t win a game in the American Athletic Conference, and they barely beat the Wagner Seahawks in last week. Wagner is a FCS team that went 4-7 in 2018 — not exactly unbeatable.
Either way, crazy things happen every week in college football (hello, Georgia State), and the Illini can’t overlook what seems to be a lesser opponent. That’s the exact mindset that they have, according to Milo Eifler,
“You know college football, a lot of teams get upset just because going into the game they think their opponent is weaker than them,” the junior linebacker said. “We don’t have that mindset... We’ve been working hard for this.”
Players to Watch
Kevin Mensah (RB): Mensah had a breakout season for UConn in 2018 when he became the first Huskies running back to break 1000 yards rushing since 2011. He had a strong performance against Wagner, where he carried the ball 36 times for 144 yards and a touchdown. He is the workhorse for the Huskies, and Illinois’ defense should not ignore him.
Art Thompkins (RB): Thompkins is a transfer expected to make an impact for the Huskies. After spending four years playing at Toledo, the graduate transfer had a solid debut, rushing for 91 yards on 17 carries, including a touchdown. UConn is a team that likes to carry the ball, so it’ll be crucial for the Illini to stop Thompkins and Mensah.
D.J. Morgan (LB): Morgan will be joining the Huskies after spending his first three years at Notre Dame. He didn’t see much of the field while playing for the Irish, but any time a player from a historically great school transfers to a new team, you have to take notice. He had a team-high eight tackles against Wagner, so he’s already providing valuable experience for a very young UConn defense.
Offensive coach Rod Smith commented on UConn’s defense saying, “UConn runs a multiple scheme defense. Jump between 3- and 4-man defensive line. Well-coached. It’s a different coordinator than last year, so last year’s stats and film don’t matter.”
With all of that said, the spread being in Illinois’ favor doesn’t mean much until it proves it’s the better team on the field Saturday.
In unfortunate news, Lovie Smith announced that running back Mike Epstein suffered a season ending knee injury.
#Illini Lovie: Mike Epstein went down with a season ending injury, which is unfortunate.— Mariah Guzman (@MariahLGuzman) September 2, 2019
This is the third straight year Epstein has had his season cut short due to an injury. As far as Epstein’s future, Smith said, “Mike has a lot of eligibility left, and he’ll come back strong as ever.”
Another player that you won’t see right away this Saturday, a targeting call will stall defensive back Kerby Joseph’s start.
“Kerby Joseph will be out of the first half of our next game,” Smith said. He stated Joseph was just playing hard football, but that he respects the call that was made.
It’s clear that the Illini know this game isn’t a guaranteed win, but they do know how important it is for their program — and their fanbase — to keep this win streak alive.