From the darkness, light.
As an Illini fan who was born in 1997, life has been tough in the revenue-sports section of my favorite university’s sports teams. It hasn’t always been bad, and I have gotten to watch elite athletes like Derron Williams and Dee Brown run the court, and Rashard Mendenhall and Vontae Davis perform on the gridiron, but for the revenue sports in my lifetime, it’s been far from great.
If all of the recruits that Illinois currently boasts for their 2019 recruiting class turn out to be as good as advertised, which so far they surely have looked the part, this class could be one of the best Illinois recruiting classes, in any sport, for as long as I’ve been alive. Sure, 21 years isn’t that long (or at least, that’s what I keep telling myself) but this could be a defining moment for the University of Illinois Athletics Department going forward.
And it’s well deserved.
For far too long, Illini fans have struggled in the misery and mediocracy of their revenue sports. And yes, before I’m corrected on this, I know non-revenue sports have been good if not great in recent years. As an avid baseball and volleyball player and fan, I couldn’t be happier, and as a student, it’s been an absolute blast to witness the success of these programs.
But what’s been missing in this consistent craving of success? Football and basketball.
Not only does the Illinois’ women’s basketball team look completely different than in years past, starting off the season with good non-conference play and a fresh feel under Head Coach Nancy Fahey, but the 2019 recruiting class for Illinois football looks to be a program-changer.
Spite me if you must, but despite some bad losses recently, I still have (maybe naïve) faith in Brad Underwood’s Illinois basketball program.
As I look to graduate after four (sometimes long) years at the University of Illinois, I look back at the sports I’ve witnessed and cast a sad shadow on the basketball and football programs. As a four-year member of both the Orange Krush and the Block I, far too long was I led to disappointment. That could all change with the going forward of the 2019 class.
Many of you know that my favorite subject so far in my young journalism career has been covering the NFL Draft and NFL prospects playing in the NCAA. For far too long have I yearned for a true NFL prospect to come out of this Illini program.
My heart has been enlightened in recent years with performances from Illini alums like Clayton Fejedelem, Geronimo Allison, Justin Hardee, and many other UDFAs and late-round draftees that have risen to the occasion of the NFL.
Though I’ve loved these moments of greatness, and greatly respect those athletes and every athlete to come through the program, it isn’t enough. And with the classes of 2018 and 2019, it might be time that I, and Illini fans like me, get some much-needed encouragement in that front.
Though it won’t be a while until prospects like Isaiah Williams, Marquez Beason, and Shammond Cooper make it through the ranks and (knock on wood) declare for the NFL Draft, the thought of it should serve to provide a sense of hope for Illini fans.
With the commitment of Shammond Cooper tonight at the All-American Game, and the incoming transfer of the former MVP of that game in ex-Miami star Jeff Thomas, the future is finally looking up for Illini fans, and the program alike.
Though the Illini recruiting class won’t show that much better on the recruiting boards thanks to the way most recruiting services work, Cooper’s commitment brings a much-needed bright spot for a revenue-sports program that has been dreadful so far this year. Though there have been flashes where Illini basketball and football looked the part of a developing team that could have a presence in the Big Ten conference, it has seemed as though fate itself were against the Fighting Illini.
But for Illini football? There’s hope.
The Illini have recently landed great commitments from athletes like Williams, Beason, and Cooper, and are winning competitive recruiting battles all over the country in order to try to turn the program around.
I’ll have a more technically focused breakdown of what Shammond Cooper brings to the Illini team in the future, the do-it-all linebacker will fill what has been a hole at the linebacker spot for the Illini for years on end, but perhaps the most important thing that Cooper does for the Illini is provide hope.
I’ll be graduating from the prestigious Alma Mater in May, (likely) without seeing a Basketball team go to the NCAA Tournament, and definitely without seeing a Football team go to a bowl game.
As I make my exit from my home of four years, I’ll be looking forward to the great things to come.
The main reason I’m writing this is to tell— no, insist – Illini fans to keep their heads held high and eyes focused on the future. As a journalist, I’m not one to voice my opinions out loud, but until my next article, I’ll leave you with this opinion:
The future is bright.
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!
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After a tough loss by a touchdown despite leading for most of the game Saturday against the University of South Florida, the Illinois Fighting Illini football team will go up against one of the best teams in the Big Ten, and one of the best teams in the country. The Penn State Nittany Lions will be coming to town on Friday night to play a game under the lights at Memorial Stadium, and it won’t be an easy rebound game for the Illini.
Penn State, coached by James Franklin, is 3-0 on the year after a tight win against perennial giant-slayer Appalachian State, followed by blowout wins against Pittsburgh and Kent State. Penn State has their offense rolling thus far this season, and quarterback Trace McSorley looks more and more comfortable in the pocket as every week passes by.
Illinois put up a solid showing in a game where many experts gave them no chance of winning, leading almost the whole game last week against USF, before an explosive USF offense came to life in the fourth quarter and won the game. If it weren’t for a few defensive miscues by Illinois, the Fighting Illini may have won that game and advanced to 3-0 for the first time in seven years.
The secondary failed in coverage on a few too many plays, however, and a late Illini drive wasn’t enough for them to tie the game, as an M.J. Rivers hail mary flew deep out of back of the endzone as time expired. The Illini will look to rebound and get their third win this week in a matchup that will likely prove their hardest matchup of the year. Penn State is highly regarded as one of the best teams in the country, and they’ll be looking to state their case Friday night.
Currently, the Illini are four touchdown underdogs. A large spread against the Illini seems appropriate, considering the team’s status as a program and struggles in certain areas (especially secondary defense) thus far this season. Not to mention, they’ll have #10 Penn State coming to their home field at Memorial Stadium, with one of the most dynamic offenses in college football. Anytime a Top-10 ranked team comes to a team who has only won four Big Ten games the past three seasons, there’s bound to be a big spread.
Let’s take a look at the team’s performances last week.
Illinois Fighting Illini
The game against USF didn’t end the way the Illinois program and its fans would’ve wanted. The Illini program would’ve hoped for a big win in front of a large, Chicago-based crowd. Instead, Soldier Field was relatively empty, and the Illini fell by a score of 25-19, even though they led for a majority of the game.
The Illini had a quick start led by M.J. Rivers and the young offense. Rivers came into the Illinois offense in their game against Western Illinois, after grad-transfer starter A.J. Bush went out with an injury.
Rivers didn’t have a bad game against USF by any means, as he completed 20 of 29 passes against the Bulls for a total of 168 yards in the air. Rivers led the offense downfield multiple times on scoring drives and may have been even more successful with a tad better play-calling along the way.
Rivers has looked good in his time playing for the Illini, and he became one of few true-freshmen to start a game for Illinois Football. He has, without a doubt, gained some experience already that will help him and the Illini offense going forward. Rivers will likely be the starter until A.J. Bush can return from his injury.
(At the time of writing this, Bush’s status is unclear for the game Friday.)
The Illini also got a productive game out of star sophomore running back Mike Epstein. Epstein, in previous games, had only limited carries in order to “save” him for the more difficult challenges that come naturally headed into Big Ten play. This is likely a result of the Illini losing Epstein for the latter half of the season last year due to injury.
Epstein has played well in his limited time though, and finally got the chance to show off his talent against USF. Epstein, a Florida native, starred in his freshman year as an Illini last year, before missing the final seven games with an injury. He was one of the lone bright spots to a slow-going season for the Illini offense.
This season, Illinois ranks fourth in the Big Ten and 23rd in the FBS, averaging 243 yards rushing per game. Epstein (7.17) and fellow running back Reggie Corbin (6.49) rank second and fourth, respectively, in the Big Ten in yards per carry.
With a new Offensive Coordinator in Rod Smith, however, Epstein and the Illini backs will look for more growth and production this season. Against USF, Epstein took 19 carries for 113 yards and a touchdown. He also pulled in five receptions for 56 yards.
Penn State comes into Friday night’s contest with one of the country’s most fun offenses to watch. Led by quarterback Trace McSorley and dynamic running back Miles Sanders, the Penn State offense has been stellar so far this year.
McSorley already has accumulated 603 passing yards, and 143 rushing yards. He’s second in rushing on the team only to another dynamic offensive player in Miles Sanders. These two account for a lot of offense for Penn State, but the best way to tell you about how dynamic this offense as a whole is?
They had EIGHT players involved in a touchdown last week against Kent State.
The Illini took care of Kent State earlier in the season, but only won by a touchdown in a 31-24 outing in which the Illini struggled to get anything going on offense, or anything stopped on defense, for a majority of the game.
Penn State isn’t perfect, however, and they will be looking to correct a lot of miscues that occurred last week in their game against Kent State. Those offensive miscues included two fumbles, a handful of dropped passes and nine penalties for 109 yards — three of those which canceled out long touchdowns.
Coach James Franklin was heavily displeased after Saturday’s game, even though the Nittany Lions put up 643 yards, and the team was reported as being “hard at work” on Monday, a well-known typical off-day for the Lions, studying their mistakes in the short week of preparation.
Three Penn State wideouts have also dropped at least two passes each, and their offense, though high-scoring, hasn’t hit peak cohesiveness yet. They’ll be looking to continue to gel during a Friday night game at Memorial Stadium.
Trace McSorley vs. the Illinois Secondary
McSorley has been good as a dual threat QB thus far in the season for Penn State, and has basically accomplished everything that head coach James Franklin has asked of him. Armed with a talented WR group, who themselves haven’t exactly been perfect, McSorley could be one of the top QBs in the Big Ten this year.
If we’re being honest, Penn State has an advantage in just about every category against a young Illinois team, and this matchup seems to be no different against an Illinois secondary that has struggled in recent weeks.
The Illinois defense is ranked No. 122 nationally after allowing 325.3 passing yards per game, including 411 yards last week against USF. That being said…
It may not be easy easy as it looks on paper.
Illinois has been battered by injuries, suspensions and ejections in recent weeks, and has been forced to put a heavy reliance on freshmen and walk-ons.
The Illini will be bolstered in spirit by the fact that that should all change this week.
Starting members of the secondary Bennett Williams and Nate Hobbs will be returning to the lineup against Penn State this week after being suspended for a violation of team rules prior to the start of the season. Hobbs started 10 games last year, and Williams started seven. Hobbs was named to the BTN All-Freshman team last year after a standout season, and Williams was an ESPN.com Freshman All-American.
Talk about good reinforcements. Their return will be a huge boost to the Illini team that has so heavily relied on freshmen and walk-ons in recent weeks. Seeing them on the field will be a breath of fresh air to the program’s fans.
CB Cameron Watkins was ejected in the Week 2 tilt against Western Illinois, and Nickel CB Sydney Brown was injured in that game and missed the USF game. They are also back in the lineup this week for the Illini.
They’ll need all hands on deck, as they come up against an incredibly talented McSorley-led offense on Friday night, if they want to give their offense a chance to be competitive. It will be one of the toughest matchups that these young Illini players have faced in their college careers, and the defense will need to hold strong for the team to have a chance.
Mike Epstein vs. Penn State Defensive Line
In all honesty, every player on the Penn State defensive line will be important this week.
The Illini’s biggest offensive threat comes in the form of sophomore running back Mike Epstein. Epstein is pretty well-rested after a low-use opening to the season before breaking out last week against USF and is arguably the biggest threat on this Illinois offense.
It’s odd to think that, as a sophomore who missed seven games last year due to injury, Epstein could be that much of a powerhouse that he would be one of my keys to the game, but Epstein was one of the few bright spots in the Illinois offense last year, and he has been well-rested specifically for Big Ten season this year. That all starts this Friday night against Penn State.
The Penn State defensive line did well last week against a relatively-week Kent State rushing game, after getting torched by the Pittsburgh rushing game and allowing 214 yards in just one half of play.
The Nittany Lions defensive line will have to be consistent and pay close attention to running backs like Epstein and Reggie Corbin, as well as forcing their way into the backfield to get to the Illini quarterback.
Penn State will be required to read a lot of counters and stretch plays coming from the Illini offense, and it will be one of the more fun matchups to watch going into Friday’s game. Epstein is a dynamic talent for the Illini and will be one of the focal points for the Penn State defense as they look to contain a young, Illinois offense.
Rod Smith will need to pull out all the tricks and stops with Epstein and other young, Illini weapons, in order to keep up with a high-scoring Penn State offense, and in order to out-play a strong Penn State defense.
It will be a big test for the Illini offense in their Big Ten opener, to say the least.
This is without a doubt one of the toughest challenges that this young Illini team will have faced in their college careers. The team will get key players back like Bennet Williams, Nate Hobbs, and Lou Dorsey this week. Though this is great for this Illini team, it is still tough to see them pulling through with a win in this game.
I think that this will be a very tough game for the Illini. I’m thinking Penn State’s offense, led by McSorley, is too much to handle for the Illini. On the offensive side, I don’t see the young Illini offense putting up enough points to keep up. Though I don’t think that the game will be quite as bad as most experts are predicting, the odds are certainly not in Illinois’ favor.
It’s going to take excellent production in the run game, and the best performance to date from the Illini secondary. I don’t think Illinois will be taking this game, and I think they will lose 41-24. I think the Illini hold the Nittany Lions to a field goal or less on a few drives, but the lack of experienced depth comes back to haunt the Illini, and Penn State eventually pulls away.
The best thing Illini fans should be hoping for is continued development throughout this game, as the Illini will hopefully learn some lessons playing against a Top 10 team nationally. Win or loss, the competition will be a good learning experience for the team to head into Big Ten season. Under the lights, however, I think we’ll see Penn State advance to 4-0 going up against a the #4 Ohio State Buckeyes the following Saturday.
Tune back in to the site for more Illini football, as well as for coverage of the HUGE Illinois basketball recruiting weekend.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.