Location: West Lafayette, IN.
Mascot: The Boilermakers
2017 Record: 7-6
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.
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.
Tune to FS1 at 3:30 PM ET on Saturday to check out this matchup!
Follow us on twitter @asethi02
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?
Illinois Fighting Illini vs Purdue Boilermakers: Preview
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 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.
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.
Illinois football travels to a stadium that is incredibly familiar to the program and many of those involved with the team: Chicago Illinois’ very own Soldier Field. They make the trip up to Chicago to face the Bulls of the University of South Florida, in a rematch from last year’s non-conference game in which the Illini were thumped by a score of 47 to 23 by a then-ranked USF team.
For one thing, Soldier field has an important place in the history of Illini fans because of the legacy of Illini alumni like George Halas and Harold “Red” Grange, who were so important to the foundations of both Illinois football and the Chicago Bears organization.
Halas was the original founder and owner of the Bears, as well as an Illinois football, basketball, and baseball player. Grange, perhaps the most well-known Illinois player of all time, and ESPN-voted Best NCAAF player of all time, starred for the Bears after his graduation from Illinois.
Perhaps just as relevant to the current Illini team is Head Coach Lovie Smith’s relationship with Soldier Field, one of the most historic NFL Stadiums. Smith was the Head Coach of the Chicago Bears (in case you forgot) from 2004-2012 leading the team to the Super Bowl.
Smith will no doubt have some fond memories, as well as some not-so-fond memories, from the stadium remaining from his time in the NFL, and will lead the Illini into their biggest challenge yet this season against USF.
Illinois Fighting Illini
Illinois had a slightly more comfortable win last week in their matchup against Western Illinois, when they beat the Leathernecks by a score of 34-14 after falling behind by a touchdown early in the game (for the second week in a row.)
Illinois starting Quarterback A.J. Bush went off with a minor injury mid-way through the game, being replaced by true Freshman M.J. Rivers, who starred for the Illini for the rest of the game, finishing with one of Pro Football Focus’ highest QB passer ratings, tallying up 105 yards and 2 touchdowns in the air, and 36 yards on the ground.
The Illini offense also saw big games from RB Mike Epstein, who has starred in his playing time thus far, who ran the ball eight times for 105 yards. Epstein has starred in limited playing time for the Illini after having a breakout season last year before getting hurt. The Illinois run game will be pivotal if the Illini are to leave Chicago with a win against a very solid USF team, but I’ll have more on that later.
University of South Florida Bulls
The USF Bulls are coming off wins versus Elon and Georgia Tech. They beat the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets last week by a score of 49-38. The teams fought a high-scoring game in which teams scored 14 points or more in a quarter two times each.
USF QB Blake Barnett led the Bulls into the game, and walked out with a win after passing for two touchdowns, and running for another two. Barnett completed 21 of 31 passes and threw for 202 yards with one interception. Barnett is a good passer in the pocket, with the ability to break down secondaries if given time. More on him later, as well. The game wasn’t exactly impressive when you consider the impressive talent that resides on USF’s roster, but I have a feeling we haven’t seen the top performance of the year for the Bulls. They’re coming out of a tough game against Georgia Tech, after beating Elon by 20 points the week before.
Keys Players: USF
Blake Barnett, QB
USF’s Barnett was a top-rated quarterback coming out of high school, rated as the nation’s No. 1 pocket passer-style QB, and a consensus five-star prospect.
He signed with Alabama out of high school, and redshirted his first season in 2015. The following year in the 2016 season, he played in three games for the Crimson Tide, starting one game. He completed 11-of-19 passes for 219 yards and two touchdowns that season, before he was replaced by Jalen Hurts in the game against USC.
Barnett then transferred to Arizona State before the 2017 season, where he played in four games for the Sun Devils. He has two years of eligibility left for the Bulls.
Barnett has the opportunity and skills to give a young, depleted Illinois secondary a very tough time on Saturday, if he plays well, and if his offensive line can buy him some time in the backfield. The Illinois defense will be without several key starters this week, as far as we know, due to the suspension of players like Bennet Williams and Nate Hobbs, two starters.
The Illini have also been burned by QBs when playing otherwise-solid defense in coverage, due to the defensive line not being able to close holes, but the secondary will have to lock down Barnett in the passing game before even beginning to worry about that. Barnett is a solid pocket passer, with a good throwing arm, and will without a doubt test the coverage-skills of the secondary.
The Illinois secondary has struggled thus far in the season, with the exclusion of a few stand-out individual performances, and will be up against their toughest QB opposition yet in Barnett.
Ronnie Hoggins, CB
The USF defense was picked apart last week by the Georgia Tech offense, in a game where USF faced their first true defensive test of the season, after giving up 14 points to Elon in week one of their season.
USF’s defense comes into this year with a lot of experience, and second-year coach Charlie Strong, formerly the head coach at Texas, will feel that once the group has fully gelled, they will be a solid defensive unit.
Ronnie Hoggins, a senior, comes into this season as the USF defense’s leader. Hoggins comes into this game with 30 starts under his belt for the Bulls, and the experience of playing both the boundary corner spot and the nickel spot.
Hoggins is a speedy cornerback, with seven career interceptions. When watching game-tape of Hoggins, it’s also not hard to see that the cornerback, who comes in at just a hair under 5’9” according to most sites, possesses a leadership trait and swagger that isn’t quite matched by anyone on his team.
Hoggins has 5 solo tackles to go along with assists on 4 other tackles last week against Georgia Tech, and will be a big, experienced challenger to go up against speedy Illini wide receivers like Carlos Sandy and Dominic Stampley.
He will have to be solid in pass coverage, and in run defense, if they are to hold the Illini offense to less points than what Georgia Tech put up last year.
The Illinois offense is far from what Hoggins and USF defended against last year, and the young Illini offense be hoping that they can use their new scheme under new Offensive Coordinator Rod Smith to take advantage of the USF defense’s struggles from last week.
Key Players: Illinois
Mike Epstein, RB
Epstein hasn’t been used a lot this year, and that fact hasn’t gone unnoticed by even the casual Illinois Football fan. The sophomore back came into last year as a 3-star recruit, and the 58th overall ranked running back in the nation according to Scout. Epstein came onto the big stage at memorial stadium and dazzled crowds almost immediately.
Epstein hails from Florida, and will be looking to perform against the opposition from his home-state. Last year, Epstein played in five games as a freshman, and started three, before getting injured and missing the final seven games of the season.
Against USF last year, Epstein had eight carries for 56 yards, with one resulting in a touchdown. He added to that with two receptions for 27 yards and another touchdown. Epstein was one of the lone, effective offensive players on the Illini last year as they were badly beaten by the Bulls.
USF gave up _____ yards in last week’s game against Georgia Tech, and the Illini have the ____ ranked offense in the NCAA so far this year. Illinois will no doubt look to break open the running lanes early against the Bulls, but it could prove a challenge as USF Head Coach Charlie Strong will no-doubt be preparing for such an attempt.
Epstein may see a bigger role than in previous games, as it is a far more important game to this Illinois team than the previous two. He has shined in the roles he has been given thus far, and has averaged almost nine yards per carry over his 16 carries, an impressive tally. Epstein will be backed up by a solid running back stable comprised of solid runners like Reggie Corbin, who has three rushing touchdowns already this season.
Bobby Roundtree, DL
Bobby Roundtree, and the rest of the Illinois defensive line, if I’m honest, were noticeably lacking in presence in the Illini opener against Kent State two weeks ago. The Illinois defense only tallied up one sack in the game against the Golden Flashes, with 12 tackles for loss.
The defensive line really picked up the pace the follow Saturday against Western Illinois, tripling their sack total from the previous week, and adding on seven tackles for loss as a team. Roundtree threw in one sack in addition to those of Jamaal Woods and Isaiah Gay. The defensive line was visibly better in their week two matchup against the Leatherbacks, and will look to build off a strong game against a talented South Florida offense.
Roundtree’s athleticism, as well as that of his line partner Isaiah Gay, will be much needed in the game at Soldier Field. USF will put out all the stops in order to beat their biggest opponent thus far this year, and a Power-5 Conference team. Blake Barnett isn’t quite as athletic as last year’s USF QB Quinton Flowers, but he is still a runner, just as much as a pocket passer. Should Barnett get forced out of the pocket, his eyes will be looking downfield, and he will look to take off running.
Roundtree and Gay are the athletic pieces that Illinois will need to ensure Barnett stays inside of his pocket. IF they win their one on one matchups right off the bat, they will give the Illini defense a much better chance at containing what, to this point, has been a dynamic offense from USF. Ensuring Barnett stays in the pocket will give the Illini secondary the chance to make plays, and will give the Illini a fighting chance at a defensive victory.
This is without a doubt the toughest challenge that this young Illini team will have faced in their college careers. The team will still be missing key players like Bennet Williams, Nate Hobbs, and Louis Dorsey to suspension.
I think this is going to be a tough game for the Illini to pull out a win in, but I think that the defense continues it’s up-trend in performance, and does just enough to allow the rapidly-improving Illinois offense to take the game for the Illini. Staying true to my predictions earlier in the year, I think that the Illini come out of Soldier Field with a win here.
It’s going to take excellent production in the run game, and the best performance to date from the Illini defense, but I think the Illini will be up to the task against Charlie Strong’s Bulls. To me, Illinois walks away with a stand-out performance from its offense, and come away with close win, 34-31.
Tune back in to the site for more Illini football, as well as the big, upcoming Illini Basketball recruiting weekend.
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)
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.
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.
In just a few short hours, Illini football fans will finally get what they have been anxiously waiting for: Illinois Football will be back. Fans will once again return to Memorial Stadium with happy, hopeful attitudes, as the Illini football team will once again take the field.
Of course, with the return of Illini football comes a new group of non-conference foes waiting in the corners to face the young, Illini team, and attempt to give the young group of Illini players a cold welcome into the world of college football.
The first opponent the Illini will face as the new season begins comes in the form of Kent State, a Mid-American Conference opponent whose situation arguably resembles that of the Illinois program’s: a rebuild. The Kent State Golden Flashes come into Memorial Stadium on Saturday on the heels of going 2-10 last season, hiring a new coach (the youngest in the FBS in 31-year-old Sean Lewis), and completely changing their defensive scheme.
You can read more about Kent State, their situation coming into their season opener against the Illini, and their key-playmakers in my recent article “Know The Foe” when I detailed everything you need to know about Kent State Football ahead of their game against the Illini.
As stated above, Kent State are in a weird place as a program currently, with swapping their entire defensive system, as well as losing five of their starters on defense.
That being said, the Illini surely can’t overlook the Golden Flashes, as they have a new head coach in Sean Lewis, a Dino Babers product, and one of the most highly-touted young coaches in college football. Lewis brings a new approach to the Kent State team, one that highly prefers speed and athleticism to throw opponents off.
Most analysts have Illinois winning in big fashion over the Kent State team, which will undoubtedly leave a chip on the shoulders of the Kent State team. That being said, in the past the Kent State team has struggled heavily to put up points on offense, despite typically having overall decent offenses.
My prediction may be a little bit closer than what most analysts are saying about this game. That being said, I think Illinois will come out on top, despite likely struggling in the early drives of the game to get the offense flowing. With a young team like Illinois has, under a new offensive system, you’re bound to see some slip-ups.
Golden Flash Player to Watch (Offense): Woody Barret (Sophomore, QB)
Woody Barret comes into the Kent State football depth chart at the quarterback position after transferring in from Auburn after just one year with the program. Even though Kent State isn’t planning on announcing a starting quarterback before gameday on Saturday, it could logically be assumed that we’ll see Barret under center at the start of the game.
That being said, returning sophomore Dustin Crum threw for over 200 yards, and rushed for over 300 yards last season after coming in as a relief quarterback. Barret played in the 2017 season before his transfer at Copiah-Lincoln Community College. He racked up 1,294 yards, eight touchdowns and three interceptions. Barret is a talented dual-threat quarterback, who will provide a good preview of what this Illinois defense will see in terms of mobile quarterbacks in the upcoming season. Barret also ran for 485 yards in his season at Copiah-Lincoln, and racked up six touchdowns.
Golden Flash Player to Watch (Defense): Matt Bahr (Senior, LB)
Matt Bahr is one of my favorite defensive players on the Kent State defense, and probably overall. Although admittedly junior running back Justin Rankin probably takes the cake in the “favorite Kent State player” category of my award show. (Can we make that a thing?)
Bahr is a redshirt senior coming off of being injured and missing the majority of the season last year. Bahr played in Kent State’s week one matchup against Clemson, but was injured in Week 2 and missed all following games. Bahr’s return is a big deal for the Kent State defense, alongside another player to watch in senior linebacker Jim Jones, who led the team in tackles last year.
Bahr, after joining Kent State as a walk-on, has moved his way up through the ranks, excelling on both special teams and regular defensive coverage. A linebacking core of Jones and Bahr will prove an interesting challenge for the young Illinois offense, led by new transfer quarterback A.J. Bush.
Illini Player to Watch (Offense): A.J. Bush (Senior, QB)
A.J. Bush, after brief stints at multiple schools before finding himself at Illinois as the now-starting QB, has impressed in his time at Illinois thus far. Fans and scouts alike have been impressed by his arm skill. Bush has exhibited great touch over the top, and accuracy when throwing on even the more tough routes.
Though it could be argued that many of the new faces of the Illinois quarterback room have a better skillset than many of the quarterbacks that Illinois has had in the past few years, Bush undoubtedly has a unique skillset. His ability to remain composed in the pocket thus far in practices has been great to watch, and his evasion skills allow him to open up seemingly dead-end plays into chances for big yardage.
Bush came in quickly and took control of the Illinois offense, and even though he hasn’t exactly had too much in-game experience, he is a welcome addition to an Illinois team in need of an offensive leader under center.
Illini Player to Watch (Defense): Del’Shawn Phillips (Junior, ILB)
I’m seeing Del’Shawn Phillips, who came into last year as a four-star JUCO recruit, taking up a lot of space in the middle of the field in an attempt to slow down Kent State’s desire to move the ball quickly.
Kent State comes into their season opener bolstering a new, fast-paced offense. The offense includes a mostly-unknown factor in quarterback Woody Barret, and an exciting player in running back Justin Rankin, along with a few other decent options. The Illini linebacking core is going to have its hands full trying to contain offensive options both in the run game, and in the passing game.
Phillips was second on the team in tackles during Big Ten play, and ranked eighth in the Big Ten in tackles per game as a whole. I’m looking for even more development from the linebacker from Highland Park, Michigan, who also happens to be one of the oldest players on the team. Look for interior defense to be key to stopping Kent State’s breakneck-speed offense.
My Prediction: Illinois 41, Kent State 13
As I said in my season predictions earlier on the site, which you can find in our gallery of articles (shameless plug), I think Illinois takes care of Kent State pretty easily. As Kent State was nearly unanimously voted to finish last in the MAC, I think even a team running a new offense, with a new quarterback under center in Illinois will easily take care of business come Saturday.
As for Kent State, I see good things in their future. There’s a reason Sean Lewis is highly-touted as a young, head coach, and he already brought in one of Kent State’s best recruiting classes for this year. I think Kent State’s ceiling only goes up from this season.
Overall, two teams at different stages of the rebuild come together on Saturday, for an electric atmosphere at Memorial Stadium, but Illinois walks out with the comfortable win, heading towards Western Illinois.
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
Lovie Smith and the Illinois Fighting Illini Football staff received another commitment today out of what is quickly becoming a flowing pipeline for the coaching staff from Florida. The Illini staff gained the commitment of yet another prospect out of the Sunshine State in defensive end Seth Coleman, from Holy Trinity Episcopal Academy in Melbourne, Florida,.
Coleman announced his commitment to Illinois on Sunday the 29th, continuing recent recruiting success for Lovie and his assistants. Coleman confirmed his commitment to Illinois during his weekend visit to Champaign.
Coleman is definitely a “style-of-play” recruit for Lovie Smith and company. This group of Illini coaches likes to use quick, athletic defensive ends to get into the backfield and disrupt opposing offenses. Seth Coleman certainly fits this bill. Coming in around 6’5”, 200 lbs., the defensive end utilizes a wide range of skills and natural physical ability to find holes in opposing offensive lines.
With a good sense of timing, and a great ability to read the snap count and get ahead of the offensive line, Coleman’s highlights are full of him breaking through gaps in the line, and using his great physical ability and quick burst of speed off the line to get to opposing quarterbacks. He will likely be utilized as a 5-technique rusher on the edge, used to get straight to opposing quarterbacks.
Coleman also has a great frame for Lovie’s ideal physique for the position, with long arms and good strength to get through tight gaps, into offensive backfields.
Coleman also is a highly productive player for his school’s basketball team, which can easily be guessed as he has great reaction times, and his highlights show multiple pass break ups, wherein he uses his long arms and quick reflexes to swat or bat down passes.
Seth Coleman has thus far been a bit under-recruited when it comes to power-five schools, and Illinois became the first power-five team to offer him in June, via a phone call from Head Coach Lovie Smith himself. Coleman also currently holds offers from fifteen schools, including offers from South Florida, Florida Atlantic, Navy, Ohio, and other Division-I Programs.
He also has had reported interest from schools like Iowa State, Tennessee, and Michigan.
Coleman is the first defensive end, and the first player from Florida to commit to Illinois in the 2019 class, and with the staff hitting the state hard, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see more follow in the coming months.
The Illini continue their recent recruiting successes, as Coleman joins a class of top-tier talents Isaiah Williams, Marquez Beason, and several others.