Any time a smaller, in-state school goes against the state’s flagship university, it’s bound to be a big deal to both schools.

The same type of situation can be expected Saturday night when the Western Illinois Leatherbacks football team will travel to Champaign-Urbana to take on the Illinois Fighting Illini. (6:30 p.m., BTN)

Last Week:

Illinois got off to a 1-0 start last week when a late-game interception sealed the fate of Kent State against the Illini, as linebacker Del’Shawn Phillips picked off Kent State QB Woody Barret, the former Auburn commit who otherwise had a solid performance, in the end zone to get Illinois the ball, and the opportunity to run the clock out. They went into the half in Memorial Stadium trailing 14-3 to the Golden Flashes, and mounted a comeback led by QB A.J. Bush to retake the lead, and send fans home happy.

Still more than a bit concerned, but happy.

Western Illinois is coming off of a game against the Montana State Bobcats. The Bobcats proved to be too much for the Leatherbacks, as they took the game by a score of 26-23 after kicker Tristan Bailey won the game for Montana State with a late field goal.

The Leathernecks had the lead late into the game, after kicker Sam Crosa hit a 38-yard field goal to give Western the lead. On the next drive, Bailey hit the game-winning field goal, and the Bobcats snuck away with the win, despite a very well-played game by the Western Illinois team.

Western will come into Saturday’s game having lost their last game in a heart breaker, and with great motivation looking for their first win of the season.

For more on Western Illinois as a team, including about their new head coach, check out Illiniscoop’s Aarman Sethi’s article in the “Know Your Foe” series for Illini football.

Key Players: Western Illinois

Western Illinois returns a lot of key players from last year’s team that finished 8-4 for the year. Their offense isn’t as impressive as the caliber of offenses that Illinois will be going up against for the rest of the year, but they still have a few players that are worth watching out for.

Steve McShane (RB)

In terms of the Western Illinois offense, the team moves as Steve McShane moves. They have a capable veteran at Quarterback in senior Sean McGuire, but that being said, McShane is the real root of the offense. The senior back stands at just 5-foot-8, but he’s a big time playmaker for Western Illinois in nost just one sport, but two. You read that correctly, McShane is a star not just on the leatherback football team, but he has started for the Western Illinois baseball team since his freshman year.

McShane has been All-MVC Second Team the past two years, and will be looking to use the Illinois game to prove that his game means business, and to propel himself into a successful First Team-worthy campaign. Last year, McShane rushed for 582 yards and seven touchdowns. He also caught 31 passes for 307 yards.

McShane has totaled all of Western’s touchdowns so far this year, with six catches for 40 yards. Two of these completions were for touchdowns in the Leatherback’s season opener. He also had 11 carries for 76 yards.

Khalen Saunders (DT)

When you think about Western Illinois’ defense this year, the undoubted first player to come into your mind should be senior defensive tackle Khalen Saunders. Saunders was a preseason All-American coming into this year after having a breakout junior year in 2017.

Last year, the stud Saunders registered 57 tackles, eight sacks, and three forced fumbles and spearheaded the Leathernecks’ defense. The Illini defense had an about average performance in their opener against Kent State. However Saunders, who is listed as 6-foot-2, 310 pounds, will prove a tough challenge for the Illini line. Interior linemen Doug Kramer and Kendrick Green will have to give their all to keep Saunders away from Illinois’ backfield.

Key Players: Illinois

Illinois wasn’t impressive in their first half against Kent State last week. Fans sat bewildered as their team went into halftime down by multiple scores on the hot, Saturday afternoon, uneasy about what would become of the second half.

That’s when A.J. Bush stepped in.

Bush led the team down the field on multiple drives, putting up 28 points in the second half of the game, and extending their opening-game winning stream to 21 games, the fourth longest streak in the nation. Big plays from players like Bush, Mike Dudek, and Reggie Corbin made up for the poor offensive half the Illini had in the first half of the game, and were just enough for the Illini to pull away.

They’ll be looking to jump right out of the gates against Western Illinois with some of the same sorts of offensive firepower we saw in the second half of the opener.

Ricky Smalling (WR)

The announcement that fifth-year senior wide receiver Mike Dudek had suffered a season-ending injury for the third time in his short career shook Illini fans to their core. Dudek, a popular player with coaches, fans, and media alike, would have yet another season cut short due to a leg injury.

Even though the news was dreadful to hear, and without a doubt the Illini will miss the incredibly promising receiver, Dudek, the Illini will have to regroup at the receiver position.

Smalling caught three passes for 70 yards on Saturday, including an extremely shift double-move to get open deep downfield that put the Illini in scoring position in a key moment for the team. Now that the Illini are without Dudek, they will be looking for Smalling, a popular target last year as well, often.

Word around the program is that Smalling had a boot on his foot at practice this week. I am only taking that as precautionary at this point. If it’s serious, we may be seeing more Carlos Sandy and Edwin Carter

In reality, this section should say “The Entire Illinois WR Core” because, due to Dudek’s loss, the Illini core will need all hands on deck in order to allow new fan-favorite A.J. Bush to show off his arm. Dudek and Smalling accounted for 135 of the Illini’s 190 receiving yards last week. Smalling, along with guys like Sam Mays, Dominic Stampley, and Justice Williams, will without a doubt have to step up.

Jake Hansen (LB)

Jake Hansen had a career day on Saturday against Kent State when he accumulated a career-high and team-high 15 tackles, to go along with Del’Shawn Phillips’ 12 tackles, and Cam Watkin’s 10. Hansen also had six tackles-for-loss in Saturday’s game, even though the Illini only had one sack in the game.

Hansen will have to have another good game on Saturday, alongwith his fellow linebackers, in order to keep offensive threats like Steve McShane and Sean McGuire at bay. Hansen will have to use his speed and play recognition to keep McShane under control out of the backfield. Hansen was a star last week, and with key offensive players like Bennet Williams and Nate Hobbs suspended in the secondary, will need another good week as a leader of this Illinois defensive unit.

My Take:

In my original season predictions, I have Illinois taking this game fairly easily. I still, suspensions included, think this way. I don’t think the Illini should have too much trouble dispelling Western Illinois. The sheer size of the Illinois defensive unit when compared to the Leatherback’s offensive unit will be a big factor in letting Illinois take over the game and lock down the opposition defensively.

Look for a low-scoring game from Western Illinois. That is, if Illinois can control the run, and close running lanes. Western Illinois is a team with a lot of experience on their roster, including the man under center in Sean McGuire, and aren’t to be written off easily by most teams. They could turn out to have a solid year under first-year coach Jared Elliott.

I’m taking Illinois in this game by a score of 42 to 13. I think Western Illinois will score a few times, but mostly on field goals. I’m giving the one touchdown to RB McShane, from above, and assuming the Illinois offense comes out firing in this game, not waiting around a whole half to kick into gear.

Check back on Illiniscoops.com for more Illinois content, and for more of my articles. You can follow me on twitter @NateJWSports.

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