Big Ten

Illinois Basketball vs Georgetown: Keys to the Game

Tonight the Illinois Fighting Illini will take to the Lou Henson Court at the State Farm Center in Champaign for their second game of the regular season.

The Illini started off the season in front of a decent crowd, taking down Evansville (IN) in big fashion, by a score of 99-60. The Illini put on one of their best offensive showings under Brad Underwood, led by highly touted freshman, and former 5-star recruit,  Ayo Dosumnu who filled the stats sheet with 18 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists in 24 minutes on the court.

One of only two seniors on the team, Aaron Jordan, contributed to the cause with 19 points of his own, making 7 of his 12 shots. Junior JUCO Transfer Andres Feliz, along with sophomore Trent Frazier, also grabbed big numbers for the Illini, with 16 points and 10 points, respectively. Frazier assisted on seven Illinois scores, with Feliz assisting on three himself, along with grabbing three rebounds.

Freshman Giorgi Bezhanishvili was the leading rebounder for Illinois, with 10 rebounds in his debut game in the orange and blue.

Evansville is a good team when you let them catch-and-shoot, and they showed that against the Illini, but Brad Underwood’s defense did enough, holding the Purple Aces to just 6 of 24 shooting from behind the arc.

Tonight, however, will be a completely different opponent for the Illini, as they will play host to the Georgetown Hoyas. The Hoyas will serve as the first true test to where this Illinois program stands in its second year under Head Coach Brad Underwood, but what will it take for Underwood and his players to get the job done?

Here’s my thoughts.

 

Keys to the Game

 

Can Illinois contain the Georgetown frontcourt?

Illinois Basketball has had a problem in recent years. Amidst all of the other things that you can say about the Illinois program since the last glimpses of historical success, this problem has stood (almost) the test of time.

Illinois lacks a true Big Ten Caliber center, or do they?

Freshman Giorgi Bezhanishvili pulled down 10 rebounds last week, and took advantage of a massive height advantage against Evansville (who were missing their starting Center, due to a suspension). Other Freshman Samba Kane was inactive against Evansville due to a violation of team rules, but Brad Underwood has confirmed he will be available for tonight’s game. Graduate transfer Adonis De La Rosa’s status is still up in air, as he attempts to make up ground lost with his new program due to an injury that kept him out of early season practices. De La Rosa will be a fantastic addition to the Illinois program when he is healthy, but for now, his availability is unclear headed into this game.

Georgetown comes to town with a height advantage in the paint, and Hoyas center Jessie Govan is a legit NBA prospect, and could be one of the best big men the Illini face this season. He’s currently averaging 19.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks on the season.

The responsibility of containing Govan will fall largely on the shoulders of true freshman Bezhanishvili, along with Samba Kane coming in for occasional reps. Kipper Nichols experience could also come into play in out-rebounding Govan, as last season he often featured against opponents who had a height advantage. Bezhanishvili will come into a battle against Govan that will, undoubtedly, allow him to continue to learn and develop.

Should the fan-favorite freshman be able to contain Govan, the Illini will feel they have a real chance at going to 2-0 on the season.

 

Can the Illinois Guards continue to score at a high rate?

In their last game, the Illinois “Three-Headed Monster” of sophomore Trent Frazier, freshman Ayo Dosunmu, and junior Andres Feliz combined to score a massive 44 points for the Illini. They also combined to perform well in the rebounding and assist category.

Brad Underwood feels great about this guard combination, aided by defensive-standout DaMonte Williams, and freshman Alan Griffin, who was a standout in New York as a hot-handed shooter. With so much youth and talent on the roster, the Illini will hope their proficiency in small-ball will allow them to overcome any height disadvantage they face tonight against the Hoyas, and for the rest of the season.

Small, fast-paced play is a virtual “Ten Commandment” of Brad Underwood basketball, and they’ll look to continue to improve in that category as they  come up against a talented group of young guards, including the high-flying Mac McClung.

The young Illinois guards will continue to try to perform, and could prove too big a task for even talented young guards Mac McClung and James Akinjo. The duo is currently playing in its third collegiate matchup, and will face its toughest test yet in an underrated group of Illini guards.

If all four young guards are at the top of their game in the game tonight, it could be a heck of an early-season matchup for the two combinations.

 

Can Illinois continue to force massive amounts of turnovers?

In their game against Evansville, the full-court pressure and half-court pressure of the Illini seemed to overwhelm the Purple Aces at times.

In fashion with that trend, the Aces turned the ball over a massive 24 times. The Illini capitalized, and turned those turnovers into several fastbreaks throughout the night. Illinois, as stated above, faces another group of young guards, but the Hoyas also boast an older group of starters and reserves than Evansville did, and turnovers could be harder to come by.

Last season, the Illini performed well in the turnover category. This season’s recruiting class increased the capabilities of the Illini in the defensive category, with the addition of length and quickness when compared to last year’s roster.

Freshman guard Ayo Dosunmu was known for his quick hands in high school, and has already showed the capability to force turnovers in the young season. Add that to Brad Underwood’s defensive style, which is consistently changing and capitalizing on the mistakes of opposing offenses, and it bodes well for the Illini in the turnover category.

To me the second most important thing the Illini have to do tonight, besides overcoming a height advantage, will be forcing the talented young duo of  McClung and Akinjo to turn the ball over. If the guards have trouble controlling the ball, it will be much harder for Georgetown to take advantage of the height difference between the two teams.

 

Illinois face a wholly different task tonight against the Hoyas, but if they can force turnovers, overcome the height difference, and continue to provide offensive firepower, they should move to 2-0 on the young season before being tested in the Maui invitational.

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Know the Foe: Purdue Boilermakers

Location: West Lafayette, IN.

Mascot: The Boilermakers

2017 Record: 7-6

The Breakdown:

The Purdue Boilermakers (2-3) enter this game having won their previous two contests and are looking to keep the winning momentum going against the Illini. It was a rough start for Purdue’s 2018 season as they fell to Northwestern in their first game 31-27. This was probably a game they should have won, especially with freshman wideout Rondale Moore emerging as a star, in this contest.

The next contest saw Purdue host Eastern Michigan. This ended in disappointment as Purdue fell in upset fashion yet to a 2018 opponent by a final score of 20-19. The next matchup pit SEC foe Missouri and Purdue together. This was a back and forth contest with the Missouri Tigers coming out on top 40-37.

After this game there were a lot of questions being asked about Jeff Brohm’s team and whether his team could handle the preseason expectations. Purdue then hosted then ranked #23 Boston College and Purdue had their best showing of the year, winning 30-13. Finally, two weeks ago Purdue continued B1G play against Nebraska and was virtually unstoppable on offense and thus cruised to a 42-28 victory. Coming off a bye week, Purdue has had plenty of time to prepare, so it’ll be interesting to see how they come out against the Illini.

Offense

The Boilermaker’s offense is quite intriguing because it has all the major components to be one of the best in the B1G. Starting at QB is senior David Blough who had a fantastic season last year before suffering a season ending injury against the Illini. He has been fantastic this season completing around 68% of his passes, throwing for 1318 yards, and a 7 to 1 TD to INT ratio in just 3 games (took over starting job in third game of the season).

He is not the only threat for Purdue’s offense. Senior RB DJ Knox has also had himself a nice start to the season totaling 390 rushing yards on 70 carries while also scoring 5 rushing TD’s. Knox is the type of player who doesn’t look very fast at first, but has excellent second level speed. If I were to compare him to anyone in the B1G it would have to be the Illini’s very own, Reggie Corbin.

As stated before, freshman wideout Rondale Moore had a pretty outstanding first collegiate game against Northwestern. As a receiver he had 11 receptions for 109 yards and a TD, and as a runner he carried the ball twice for 79 yards and a TD. These stats were absolutely phenomenal and he instantly become a Purdue fan favorite. He has kept up that pace too as he has totaled 41 receptions for 457 yards and 4 TD’s this season. Purdue’s offense is one to watch even if they aren’t playing the Illini that week.

Defense

Miscellaneous

Tune to FS1 at 3:30 PM ET on Saturday to check out this matchup!

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; @NateJWSports

Game Preview: Illinois Football vs Purdue

Saturday, the Illinois Fighting Illini Football team comes back to Champaign to take the field looking to win two Big Ten Conference games in a row for the first time in years, after they’ve looked promising so far to start the season.

Lovie and co will square off against one of their two rivals from the next state over in the Purdue Boilermakers. The Boilermakers sit at 1-1 in the conference on the season, with a 2-3 record overall with losses against Northwestern, Eastern Michigan, and Missouri.

Illinois is the only team that the Boilermakers have a multi-game active win streak against, after topping the Illini in the last two seasons.

Two years ago, hearts were broken as the Boilermakers completed a last-second kick to down the struggling Illini at Memorial Stadium. Then last year, the Boilermakers took control early of the game at Purdue, and though they definitely didn’t take momentum and blow out the Illini, they grabbed a comfortable win in front of their home fans.

Illinois and Purdue are both in rebuild mode this season, with Illinois’ Lovie Smith in his third year of the process, and Purdue’s coach Jeff Brohm is in his second season with the Boilermakers, with a 7-6 record overall.

Rebuilding teams collide at Memorial Stadium for Illinois’ Homecoming game on Saturday in a game that will have significant bowl-game impact for both teams, the question stands: will the Illini achieve their second Big Ten win in a row, or will Purdue spoil the Illini celebrations?

Let’s discuss.

 

Illinois Fighting Illini vs Purdue Boilermakers: Preview

 

Rutgers

Last Week

Last week, Purdue got their first Big Ten win of the season against the Nebraska Cornhuskers. The Purdue offense went off, and the Cornhuskers couldn’t keep up as Purdue’s Junior Quarterback David Blough threw for 328 yards and a touchdown on 25 completions of 42 attempts. HE also rushed for 38 yards and a touchdown on just seven attempts.

Purdue didn’t look bad last week against Nebraska, and if they are able to run the ball and mix in misdirection as they did last week, Illinois will need a lot of offense if they are to remain in the game.

Rutgers defense struggled last week, allowing Nebraska’s Quarterback Adrian Martinez to throw for 323 yards and two touchdowns on 25 completions out of 42 attempts. He also threw an interception, and accumulated 91 rushing yards on 18 attempts.

Purdue also allowed Nebraska’s Devine Ozigbo to take control of the game, rushing for 170 yards on 17 attempts, with two touchdowns of his own. If Illinois can take advantage of Purdue’s rushing defense, and prove that they can (at least, sort of) throw the ball, they’ll be hard to stop on offense.

 

Illinois

Illinois didn’t look half bad either in last week’s game against Rutgers, in which the offense starred against a poor Scarlet Knights defensive effort. And when I say the Rutgers defense is poor, I mean really poor. Illinois did what they needed to, and took care of Rutgers.

The Illinois defense had 3 interceptions in the game, and allowed just 267 passing yards from Freshman QB Artur Sitkowski, on 29 completions for 46 attempts. Though the interceptions are great, the passing statistic still jumps out to me as something the Illini need to improve on. Passing defense, simply has to be better. The new loss of last year’s freshman stud Bennet Williams certainly won’t help that.

The Illinois offense, however, looked good last week. Quarterback A.J. Bush didn’t have much chance to really take control of the game, as the Illini focused on running the ball down the throats of a poor, Rutgers rushing defense. That being said, in the statistical category, Bush only threw for 89 yards on 10 of 18 attempts, but managed to throw for one touchdown.

Bush’s real impact was seen in the ground game. Bush ran for 116 yards with two touchdowns, on 18 attempts, and was a vital piece of an Illinois offense that put up one of it’s most impressive showings in recent years, combining for 334 yards rushing, and scoring 38 points to add to 89 passing yards.

Purdue will have to keep it’s offense moving against the Illini, and force the young Illini offense to compete with it, in order to win this game in the scoring category.

 

Players to Watch: Purdue

 

Rondale Moore, Freshman, WR

Moore comes into this season as a highly-touted four-star recruit at the wideout spot for the Boilermakers. He originally was committed to Texas, but then flipped his commitment to Purdue during the process. Moore is an immediate impact player, and he has shown it thus far on the season. Currently, the 5-foot-9, 175-pound Moore leads the Big Ten in receptions per game with 8.2, and also leads in all-purpose yards per game with 179.

Moore gives the Boilermakers a talent you usually only see at big-name schools like Ohio State, Alabama, etc., and will be a big test in coverage for the young Illini secondary.

Markus Bailey, Junior, LB

One of the most impressive things about the Boilermaker’s star linebacker is his durability and longevity. Bailey has started 30 straight games for Purdue headed into Saturday’s game at memorial stadium, and has racked up a massive 226 tackles, 10.5 sacks, and five interceptions to go along with many other impressive stats. Bailey is a big, athletic man in the middle for the Boilermakers, and will be key to shutting down the dynamic Illinois rushing game.

 

Players to Watch: Illinois

AJ Bush Jr, Senior, QB

The temptation to put one of Illinois’ playmakers in this spot was incredibly tempting. And of course, the likes of Mike Epstein, Reggie Corbin, and Ricky Smalling will need to have good games in order for the Illini to win this game.

But honestly, football is a game ran by quarterbacks, and without a decent-to-good passing game, games are much harder to win. Bush will need to shake off some rust from his weeks away when M.J. Rivers was at the helm, and prove that the Illini can pass the ball, in addition to run it. Some of this, of course, relies on playmakers like Ricky Smalling and Luis Dorsey to get open enough to allow for passes to be completed, but the responsibility lies heavy on the head of the Illini quarterback.

 

Nate Hobbs, Sophomore, DB

Hobbs did some of his best work last week against the Rutgers offense, and was rewarded with his ffirst interception as an Illini. Hobbs was a BTN.com All-Freshman Team recipient last year, and started in ten games for the Illini. Hobbs was suspended earlier in the season, but has already made his presence known to opposing offenses.

Though thus far this season there has been stability at the defensive back position in the form of Cameron Watkins, Hobbs, alongside guys like Tony Adams and Sydney Brown, will need to step up and perform this weekend against a solid Purdue offense. If the Illinois defense can slow down the Boilermakers and put their offense in a good position, the Illini will have a good chance to take the game.

It’s been tough for the Illini defensive backs thus far, and the defensive unit as a whole, as they’ve let up more than their fair share of yards. If they can pull it together, they can give Illinois a chance to win back to back conference games, and continue their momentum going forward.

 

My Prediction

Illinois 34, Purdue 31.

I predicted Illinois to win this game earlier in the preseason.

It isn’t going to be easy for the Illini to take this game, but they won’t be disappointed with their chances and opportunities, as Purdue has been far from struggle-free this season. I think that Illinois’ offense continues their run of good from from their game against Rutgers, and QB A.J. Bush shakes off the rust. This will allow the Illinois defense to do just enough to secure the win in front of their home crowd on homecoming. The Illinois RBs have to continue to do their job, and the offensive line has to continue to set their guys up to succeed.

Illini fans, you’ll need your fingers crossed for this one.

 

Illini Dudek Out: Who Gets the Targets?

Illinois Fighting Illini fan-base, and the program as a whole, was shocked at Lovie Smith’s announcement that fan-favorite wide receiver Mike Dudek suffered a season-ending injury for the third time in his collegiate career.

Not only did Illinois lose a fan-favorite receiver, but they lost one of the most promising receiving prospects the Illini have had in quite a while. Dudek, in his fifth year of school at Illinois after already having suffered career ending injuries twice, was set for a breakout season to (ideally) cap off his collegiate career in a high-performance year.

The Illini will miss his ability on field for yet another year.

Due to the loss of Dudek, graduation of second-leading receiver Malik Turner, as well as the on-going suspension of one of last year’s starlet freshmen, receiving tight end Louis Dorsey, the Illini will have to look for new receiving threats going into their Week 2 matchup against the Leatherbacks of Western Illinois. They will also be without WR Carmoni Green, who is also serving an indefinite suspension for violation of team policy.

The Illinois Wide Receiving Situation

First, we should take an appreciation of the improved Illinois passing game. Though we’ve seen a small sample size with only one game being in the books, in which the Illini offense struggled in the first half, the team still looked to have a much-improved passing game from last year.

Fans in 2017 complained (almost endlessly) about the abysmal Illinois passing game.

The offense received a much-needed upgrade with the hiring of new Offensive Coordinator Rod Smith, and the transfer of now-starting QB A.J. Bush, as well as some capable backups coming in with the 2018 recruiting class in Matt Robinson, M.J. Rivers, and Coran Taylor.

The Illinois passing game has a rejuvenated feel to it, and the improvement could easily be seen in the second half of last week’s game.

So, with an improved passing game, the question remains: Who does the new and improved passing offense look for in a receiving threat with Dudek and Dorsey out?

The answer?

It will be a whole-staff effort to get the receiving ball moving.

Currently, the Illini staff has 11 players listed as potential downfield targets on it’s roster besides those who are injured or suspended.

They are: Ricky Smalling, Dominic Stampley, Sam Mays, Carlos Sandy, Caleb Reams, Justice Williams, Zac Holman, Edwin Carter, Dylan Thomas, Jordan Holmes, and Cam Stacy.

Though that may seem like a lot of recievers on a roster, of the available players for Saturday, just two recievers caught more than one pass last week against Kent State: Sam Mays, and Ricky Smalling.

Smalling led the Illini in receiving yards last year, with 31 receptions for over 500 yards. He also showed off his talent on Saturday, in a game where he once again led the team in receiving yards, with a slick double-move down the field against the Kent State cornerback. That reception led to the biggest Illinois reception of the day.

Word around the program at the moment is that Smalling was in a boot at practice. That being said, it is just a precautionary statement at this point, and as far as we know, Smalling will once again feature in Saturday’s game against Western Illinois.

However, behind Smalling, the depth looks a little shallow. Which could be an issue if Smalling is ruled out for one reason or another. The only other receivers to catch a pass last week besides Smalling and Mays were WR Justice Williams (after a positional change coming into the year), and RB Reggie Corbin.

Of the remaining wide receivers besides Smalling and Dudek, the three players to catch a pass last week totaled for 6 catches, and 55 yards.

Though not a bad total overall considering the lackluster first half, the stats once again show the impact that the loss of Dudek will have on the receiving core, and the Illini offense.

The good news for the Illini? They have some depth that can step up at the wide receiver position.

Breaking down the remaining wide receivers after the loss of Dudek (and disregarding Smalling, for breakdown’s sake), the Illini have some promise still to make up for the loss of Dudek. Let’s break down the key remaining players.

Sam Mays – One of three Illini recievers to catch more than 1 pass last week, the senior from Missouri City, Texas is a big target for the Illini. Mays is listed on Illinois’ website at 6-foot-3, 200 pounds. He had his career-high in receiving yards last week against Kent State, and brings experienced to a mostly-young receiving core.

Dominic Stampley – Stampley, a Champaign native, transferred in this year to begin his sophomore year after spending one year at Coffeyville Community College, where he had 17 receptions for 278 yards. He averaged an incredible 16.4 yards per reception in his redshirt freshman year, and comes into Champaign with three years of elgibility remaining.

Stampley, a Champaign Centennial graduate, was all smiles after making his debut against Kent State. The Illini could definitely look to increase the looks that Stampley will get in the slot with Dudek being ruled out for the season. If Stampley could recreate even a small fraction of the success he had at Coffeyville, it would be a huge gain for the Illinois offense that will be looking for threats downfield on Saturday.

Carlos Sandy – Carlos “Ferrari Feet” Sandy comes into his freshman year at the University of Illinois after having been named a 3-star recruit by most services, and totaling almost 500 yards on just over 30 receptions as a senior.

Sandy also had an incredibly impressive junior year the year before at Cardinal Gibbons High School in Florida, pulling in 43 receptions for a massive 800 yards in the air. Sandy made his debut in the game against Kent State, but didn’t have a large impact on the game. He returned one kickoff for 28 yards, and the Illini will likely look to use him in that role again.

It’s entirely possible that we see Sandy’s workload increased though, in the game against Western Illinois, as Sandy can utilize great speed to get open downfield, something the Illini will look forward to using now knowing that A.J. Bush has a trustworthy arm in-game.

Justice Williams – Justice Williams has received high praise coming into this season after making a switch from the defensive side of the ball to being a sturdy wide receiver. The change happened after Williams impressed Coach Lovie Smith and staff in practice last year after an impressive catch made over former-Illini Jaylen Dunlap, who was one of Illinois’ best defensive backs at the time.

Williams made the switch in training camp prior to this season, and has impressed coaches with his size and ability to get vertical for the ball, using his long frame and big size to make plays. Williams is a good target for the Illini to look to use, and they targeted him a few times in the season opener with corner routes into the endzone. Though Williams only pulled in one catch for four yards last week, don’t be surprised if Rod Smith’s offense targets Williams more in the upcoming matchup.

The Non-WR Options:

There are a few other receiving threats on this Illinois team, currently, in other positions such as running backs and tight ends, but a good Big Ten team needs capable wideouts, even in the current conference, which focuses heavily on the run-game.

Players like Reggie Corbin and Mike Epstein could get more receptions coming out of the backfield to make up for the loss of Dudek. We could see more targets for the Illini tight ends, and we should expect to once Luis Dorsey rejoins the team. We could also see other tight ends like Austin Roberts and Brandon Jones get increased targets.

Smalling will have a lot more pressure to succeed in the coming games, and he will also likely now see opponent’s best cornerbacks lined up against him. It will be interesting to see how he reacts.

The Breakdown:

Having options is a good thing, but without many sure-fire options outside of Smalling and a handful of others, Rod Smith is going to have to test the waters for who he can trust in-game. Look for QB A.J. Bush to spread the ball around a bit in the passing game on Saturday, for the team to feel out their receiving situation.

Overall, the Illini have a lot of options, and should be able to find some capable players to target for the rest of the season. Whether it comes from new-faces to the team, or out of the backfield, Rod Smith will be sure to test out all of his options after the loss of Dudek.

Game Preview: Illinois Football vs Western Illinois

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.

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Illini Scoops Staff football predictions and season keys

We’re just days away from the beginning of the 2018 Illinois Fighting Illini Football season, and we here at Illini Scoops are just as excited as you guys are. That being said, how will the Illini Football team fare as compared to last year, going winless in the Big Ten?

With a freshly upgraded roster (nearly all-around), and a stable QB room that will look to improve under new Offensive Coordinator Rod Smith, how much improvement can Lovie Smith and the Illini make from their season just one year ago?

Below, our staff gave their season predictions for the Illinois Football Season, and each gave what they believe to be a key to the Illini having some success.

Nate Williamson’s Season Prediction:

I expect some improvement from the Illini, to say the least. Illini fans should be looking for a four or five win season, but for my predictions, I’m going to go with the Illini football team winning six games, and dropping six games. Taking a brief glance at this schedule, it’s one of the easiest schedules the Illini have faced in many years. A schedule without Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State bodes well for the young Illini.

I have the Illini starting at 3-0, with blowout wins against Kent State and Western Illinois. They’ll follow these games with a tight win against the University of Southern Florida. They will drop to 3-1 after a loss against Penn State, beat Rutgers and Purdue (homecoming), before dropping a game to a stacked Wisconsin team that will be in contention for the National Title. A win against a Maryland team in an interesting situation at the moment secures a bowl birth for Illinois, before they move on to losses against Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, and Northwestern to end the season, before they are announced to a bowl.

Key to the season: Health. The team has to keep it’s playmakers and best players healthy. A team that isn’t as deep as it would like to be, and for the Illini to succeed and achieve the wins above, they’ll have to keep positions like the offensive line, running backs, their main quarterbacks, and their linebackers all healthy. A handful of key players going down hurt the Illini greatly last year, and they’ll have to avoid that this year to succeed.

Aarman Sethi’s Season Predictions

This should be a fun year for Illini football. Head Coach Lovie Smith has announced AJ Bush as the starting QB and I definitely expect some offensive fireworks this year.

Regarding the Illini’s overall record this year I fully expect them to qualify for a bowl game. Here’s how they get there. The Illini should have a comfortable start to their season with wins over Kent State, Western Illinois, and USF. Next is a tilt with Penn State in Champaign. Penn State has too much talent currently and might be heading to the college football playoff. That’s a loss, but Rutgers and Purdue are next up and I believe Illinois will be victorious in those matchups.

This puts the Illini at an unfathomable record, for most fans, 5-1. Great start to the season, but can they finish it off? The road tilt against Maryland and the home tilt against Minnesota are the two matchups remaining that I believe Illinois can get that sixth or seventh win. That would be a remarkable season for the Illini and really bring the buzz of college football, back to Champaign.

Keys to the Season:

Skill players. Yes, the QB position is vital for an Illinois football team that will rely on its offense to pull out victories this year, but if the skill players produce, they could make AJ Bush’s year a lot easier. Expect the household Illini football names, Mikey Dudek, Ricky Smalling, Mike Epstein, Louis Dorsey, etc. , to produce big time if their team is to have a successful season.

Matt Moore’s Season Predictions

The third iteration of Lovie Smith’s Fighting Illini will roar out of the gate with a remarkably improved offense. I look for 50-plus points to be scored in each of the first two games against Kent State and Western Illinois. If the Illini aren’t putting up pinball machine type numbers in the first two games, it could be a really long season once again.

The neutral site game in Chicago versus South Florida will be a stern test. South Florida will have the team speed to run all over the field with the Illini skill players. It will be time for the Illini to just make more plays than a good, but not as good as last year USF team. Just because I WANT the Illini to show good improvement, I will say that a 37-36 win over USF will begin to build some positive vibes around the program.

Ryan Evan’s Season prediction

I think it’s safe to say that Illini Scoops strongly believe in the rebuild of the Illinois football program and it’s new pieces. USF is the pivotal game that could swing a big season for Illinois. Illinois will at least double it’s win total from last season, but in my opinion, they will win all the home games they are supposed too plus steal a road game. I see Illinois winning 7 games this season and upsetting Maryland or Nebraska.

Having a Quarterback with 5 tools and quality leadership isn’t something Illinois has had in many seasons. A.J. Bush will make life so much easier for everyone and adding another year for a young but talented O-Line will be priceless. Confidence and that taste of winning for a program turning the corner will fill memorial stadium, something the players are thirsty for. Illinois wins 7 and goes bowling for the first time in 4 years.

Key to the season: Defense

This is the year Illini fans truly see what Lovie has patiently been building. He has Maulers up front on the defensive line, and many of them. Calvin Avery and Verdis Brown will help talented upperclassmen Tymir Oliver, Kenyon Jackson and Jamal Milan greatly. All 5 of those men are nasty warriors in the trenches. With the maturity and weight added to Bobby Roundtree and Isaiah Gay along with Owen Carney and Lere Oladipo, this defensive line is set for years to come. Having a healthy Jake Hansen to match with Delshawn Phillips will be critical for success this season at the weakest position of depth and experience. Dele Harding and Khalan Tolson will be names to watch as well.

Illinois already will have a top 5 secondary in the BIG once the season is over with year. Instinctual, hard hitting and relentless describes what you will see from Hobbs, Adams, Green, Watkins, Williams, Martin ,Walker, Joseph and Brown this season. Ballhawks. The Year of Lovie defense has arrived in Champaign

Illini Scoops Freshman Spotlight Series: Jordyn Slaughter

Illiniscoops’ Nate Williamson (@NateJWSports) recently got to talk to Illini Freshmen and Offensive Lineman Jordyn Slaughter (@Slaughter66_). He sat down to talk about what it has been like getting accustomed to living life as an Illinois football player. He also asked him to introduce himself to fans on a personal basis, and about the progress he has made during his time with the Illini so far. Check out the full interview below.

What is your favorite NFL team?

  • New England Patriots

If you were going to play any other sport in college of your choosing, what would it be?

  • Basketball

Now, for the real questions.

– Want to share a little bit about where you’re from, where you went to high school, and how long you’ve been playing football?

  • Well i’m from East St.Louis, IL. For high school, I attended Althoff Catholic in Belleville, IL, and I’ve been playing football for almost 8 years now. –

– What would you say are the strongest elements of your game on the offensive line, and what do you bring to the team?

  • I think the strongest elements of my game are my pass blocking skills, and also my intelligence on the field to react to situations.. The biggest thing i bring to the team would be my leadership skills, even though i’m only a freshman.

What first turned you on to Illinois, and made you know you wanted to be an Illini? What was the big recruiting draw for you?

  • There never was one specific thing that really made me an illini fan, I’ve just always been a fan of them. I never really realized i wanted to be an Illini until i received my first offer, and then I knew I wanted to play there. The biggest thing that made me want to come here was the atmosphere on game day, and the experience of the coaching staff.

– Are you enjoying campus?

  • I’m loving campus now even though it’s not the school year and everyone isn’t here yet

– What are you looking forward to most in your first season as an Illinois football player?

  • The biggest thing i’m looking forward to this year is to finally experience what it’s like to be an Illini, and suit up for game day.

– Are there any specific guys you’ve started to get close to and form a bond with already?

  • I’m pretty close with everyone on the offensive line and in my class and a few older players but not that many.

Now, Illini fans know that you’re coming off of an injury a bit ago, hows the rehabbing going for your shoulder, and how are you feeling?

  • The rehab is coming along great.. I’m making gains in the weight room which is good and also i should be ready for summer camp next week when it starts

If you could say one thing to Illinois football fans ahead of the coming season, right now, what would it be?

  • To stay committed to our program through the good and the bad.

Nate Williamson is a journalism student at the University of Illinois, working for illiniscoops.com, as well as Last Word on NFL. He is also the Co-Founder of TheSportsGuysSite.com… Stay tuned into this site for more articles from Nate and the rest of our Illini staff, and make sure to check back soon for more interviews, breakdowns, and discussion from the guys!