Illinois

Know the Foe: Purdue Boilermakers

Location: West Lafayette, IN.

Mascot: The Boilermakers

2017 Record: 7-6

The Breakdown:

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

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

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

Offense

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

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

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

Defense

Miscellaneous

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

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Game Preview: Illinois Football vs Purdue

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s discuss.

 

Illinois Fighting Illini vs Purdue Boilermakers: Preview

 

Rutgers

Last Week

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

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

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

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

 

Illinois

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

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

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

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

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

 

Players to Watch: Purdue

 

Rondale Moore, Freshman, WR

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

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

Markus Bailey, Junior, LB

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

 

Players to Watch: Illinois

AJ Bush Jr, Senior, QB

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

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

 

Nate Hobbs, Sophomore, DB

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

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

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

 

My Prediction

Illinois 34, Purdue 31.

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

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

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

 

Illinois vs Penn State: Game Preview and Key Matchups

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.

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

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.

Keys Matchups

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.

My reasoning?

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.

My Take

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.

Illini Dudek Out: Who Gets the Targets?

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

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

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

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

The Illinois Wide Receiving Situation

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

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

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

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

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

The answer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Non-WR Options:

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

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

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

The Breakdown:

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

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

Game Preview: Illinois Football vs Western Illinois

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

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

Last Week:

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

Still more than a bit concerned, but happy.

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

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

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

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

Key Players: Western Illinois

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

Steve McShane (RB)

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

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

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

Khalen Saunders (DT)

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

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

Key Players: Illinois

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

That’s when A.J. Bush stepped in.

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

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

Ricky Smalling (WR)

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

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

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

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

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

Jake Hansen (LB)

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

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

My Take:

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

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

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

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

Illini Scoops Staff football predictions and season keys

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

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

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

Nate Williamson’s Season Prediction:

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

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

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

Aarman Sethi’s Season Predictions

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

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

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

Keys to the Season:

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

Matt Moore’s Season Predictions

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

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

Ryan Evan’s Season prediction

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

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

Key to the season: Defense

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

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

Illinois Football Camp Breakdown: August 14

On Tuesday August 14th, the Illinois fighting Illini Football team held another open practice during their training camp period, while getting ready for the upcoming season. There was a lot to watch for, as is typical with so many fresh faces when a new season begins, but these training period really allow us to look at exactly who could take a leap and become a household name this season.

Lovie and Co. had another good day with their young, talented squad, and the team didn’t disappoint the fans and media members in attendance, as Illinois showed off what could be the best top-to-bottom roster it has had in recent years.

Here’s some of the key things I noticed at today’s camp, for those of you that missed my breakdowns on Twitter.

M.J. Rivers had his best day thus far, after being rewarded with second team reps for today’s practice. He showed off his high arm strength that many Illini fans have pointed out recently from his high school highlights. Rivers comes into a quarterback race at Illinois that remains wide-open, and he certainly made his case today, completing on several deep balls and also on quick slant routes to all manners of receivers during both QB/WR Drills, and full-team offense/defense drills.

If Rivers can continue to build and get comfortable in Rod Smith’s offense, he certainly has the talent and ability to make himself a top-tier choice for the Illinois offense behind apparent QB1 A.J. Bush.

Rivers, however, has a lot of competition for the QB position, and will have to fight with, and likely surpass, the player who is the focus of the next thing I saw.

Matt Robinson, now an Illini fan favorite, continued Tuesday to showcase his abilities and make his case. From the start, Robinson really caught my eye. In QB/Receiver drills, Robinson showed off his accurate arm, completing both deep-ball passes on streak routes to speedy receivers like Mike Dudek, to corner routes from TE Luis Dorsey.

Robinson has really impressed Illini fans as of late with his ability to throw the ball, but Robinson also showed his running ability, on one play in a later drill, evading the sack from a defensive lineman, and scrambling for a fifteen-yard gain, and could easily have had more. Robinson, to me, looks like the clear-cut QB2 for this team that showcases one of the deepest Illini QB rooms in recent years.

I was impressed with Robinson today, even though Bush and Rivers got most of the time with first string units. He’s shown out through camp and will look to continue fighting for the primary backup spot, or even the starting spot, should Bush suffer a setback.

The Defensive Line showed out, and took the day from Offensive Line. The Defensive Line was matched up once again against the Offensive Line in today’s practice, and they certainly didn’t disappoint. The defensive line (in real-time drills) often got into the line of scrimmage and frustrated the offensive unit, taking sacks and tackles-for-loss at a high rate. The young defensive line is certainly a bright spot going forward, especially with the addition of one of my favorite freshmen, Calvin Avery.

The Illini Special Team’s Unit continues to impress me. As someone who loves watching special team’s work, the Illini have a great, talented group of kickers (and returners) this year. Blake Hayes continues his development, as his foot power is unparalleled to any that I’ve seen don an Illini uniform in some time. Placekickers like and Caleb Griffin continue to impress with their consistency in the position, and Coach Ligashesky’s unit will hope to thrive behind a new offense under Rod Smith and the newly-implemented offense.

Also, it’s worth noting the Special Teams performance, especially Blake Hayes, even “wowed” a certain legendary News Gazette writer who covers Illinois sports.

The team’s depth of quality the best it’s been in some time. It’s been a while since I’ve been to an Illini practice or early-season training camp where I could visibly not keep my eyes on one specific player, due to the large amount of talent on the field.

This year’s recruiting class brought in not only a solid stable of skill players, but with it the Illini also added depth and young talent at most of the positions. From linebackers to offensive linemen, the team is stacked with young, untapped potential.

The team looks fresh and ready to go for the upcoming season, and the sheer intensity players like Bennet Williams, Mike Dudek, and A.J. Bush (amongst many others) have shown throughout the early-season training camp practices points to a much-acknowledged fact: very few positions are set in stone.

Overall, Lovie’s team this year features a lot of positional battles, which bodes well for an Illini team that has for so long lacked the depth of talent that this year’s roster appears to have. With an already-booming Class of 2019 coming in next year, the staff will look to build this year, and have a seasoned core of sophomores and juniors to add to the special incoming class.