WKU Football: Illinois Preseason Preview

Rick Osentoski - USA TODAY Sports

With the kickoff of football season less than six weeks weeks away, We’ll continue to bring you our preseason look at each of WKU’s regular season opponents between now and the start of the season. Today we continue the series with Mike Sanford’s first Power Five road test , the Fighting Illini of Illinois.

Date & Time

September 9, 2017. 7 PM CST

Location

Memorial Stadium, Champaign, Illinois

Series

Illinois leads 1–0

Last Meeting

In 2014 during Jeff Brohm’s debut season, WKU lead 27–21 midway through the 3rd quarter but couldn’t hold on as the Illini won 42–34.

TV/Radio

TV - Big Ten Network
Radio- Hilltopper IMG Sports Network

2016 Season

In former Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith’s first season in Champaign, the Illini struggled mightily and finished with a 3–9 overall, beating only Murray State, Rutgers and Michigan State. That record was bad enough to finish in 6th place (out of seven teams) in the Big Ten West.

Returning Starters
11 (five on offense and six on defense)

Relevant Preview Articles

Moving forward (since EKU didn’t have any relevant material), we’ll start featuring the team previews from two websites. SB Nation’s college football guru, Bill Connelly, did an advanced statistics breakdown of all FBS teams based on his S&P+ rankings while College Football News’ Pete Fiutak did a traditional preview of each team as well. We’ll quote an interesting passage for every team moving forward.

Bill Connelly’s SB Nation Illinois Preview:

If Smith can build continuity, and if McGee can find what he’s looking for, then maybe there’s hope. There are just enough explosive guys that you can see promise if you squint. But it’s hard to predict huge things for 2017.
Then again, this is Illinois. The big seasons tend to come out of nowhere and disappear just as quickly.

Pete Fiutak’s College Football News Illinois Preview:

Again, six wins and a bowl appearance is all it’ll take this year to generate the necessary buzz. Do that, and Smith was the right hire for the right program at the right time. Struggle again in another losing season, and the grand experiment comes into question.
And Smith would be firmly on a hot seat.
Just like any other college football head coach.

Three Players to Watch

  1. Kendrick Foster - Running Back

The 5'9”, 200 pound senior from Peoria was Illinois’ most explosive player last season. Foster led the team in rushing yards (720), rushing touchdowns (7), total touchdowns (9) and all-purpose yards (1,328) while also being the team’s primary kickoff returner. He was named to the named to the Doak Walker watch list and if the Illini want to be successful, he’ll be a major reason why. Last year, WKU was stout against the run, finishing only behind Alabama in number of rushing yards allowed per game. Containing a running back that averaged 5.71 yards per carry (and someone who had three carries over 50 yards) will go a long way towards gaining the programs first Big Ten win.

2. Tre Watson - Linebacker

While Illinois will have to replace most of their defensive front, they do return a solid playmaker in junior Tre Watson. He finished second on the team last season with 102 tackles while earning a spot on the All-Big Ten Honorable Mention Team. He’ll be counted on as a leader of Smith’s aggressive defense that should be solid in the back seven. Watson also had three forced fumbles, if WKU can neutralize or avoid him, it could go along way to a successful offensive game.

3. Mike Dudek- Wide Receiver

Dudek against WKU in 2014. Photo from FightingIllini.com

Illinois’ biggest wildcard this season is Dudek. The 5‘11" junior from Naperville, Ill. burst onto the scene during his freshman season in 2014, garnering freshman All-American honors while finishing with 1,038 receiving yards on 76 receptions and six touchdowns. Against WKU, Dudek was a major factor as well, finishing with four catches for 55 yards and a touchdown. The sky was the limit heading into his sophomore season but unfortunately torn ACL’s have ruined his past two seasons, not letting him see the field since the 2014 Heart of Dallas Bowl.

If Dudek’s surgically repaired knees hold up, he can be the security blanket for whomever wins the starting quarterback job. The crafty possession receiver could keep drives alive that repeatedly stalled causing Illinois’ offensive struggles last season. WKU’s secondary has experience, hopefully they know how to limit Dudek’s damage.

Preseason Thoughts about the Game

  1. How will WKU handle their 1st road trip under Sanford?

A common theme of the 2017 season will be how new head coach Mike Sanford will handle each situation that he’ll encounter over his debut season. Traveling five hours for a night game in Champaign will prove how effectively he can focus his team during it’s first road trip. Will the team come out focused and hungry looking for their first Big Ten win or will they come out flat, sloppy and mistake prone? There is no way of knowing but the answer will go a long way into how likely a signature road win will come to fruition.

2. Will Illinois be improved?

Usually, the second year is when a new head coach shows improvement. With Lovie Smith, that remains to be seen. The questionable fit of a lifetime NFL coach with a tough Power 5 job was only deepened after Smith’s 3–9 debut. Having the advantage of a young team maturing to an experienced team and growing with the coach makes Illinois’ 2017 so fascinating. If he can establish a competent starting quarterback from junior Chayce Crouch, or junior Jeff George Jr. then there is hope with the playmakers that he has available on both offense and defense.

3. Illinois’ skill players could be dangerous

Illinois isn’t just a two horse show with Foster and Dudek, they have several other intriguing options that WKU will have to contain in order to avoid a shoot out. Foster has a great complementary back in 5'10 sophomore Reggie Corbin, who chipped in 523 yards, 2 touchdowns while averaging 6.1 yards per carry. 6'3" senior receiver Malik Turner can be the size to complement Dudek’s speed. Turner had a productive 2016 despite Illinois shuffling QB derby, gaining 712 yards while also chipping in six touchdowns. Having four proven play makers gives Illinois variety and options if they can establish a quarterback. WKU better be ready to defend the entire field going into the September 9th trip.

4. Unknown Atmosphere

Memorial Stadium isn’t exactly the most intimidating home field in the Big Ten. Several lean years on the football field and across the state (see: Illinois’ financial crises) has led to apathy at a stadium that one housed hall of famers Red Grange and Dick Butkus. Smith’s debut season did nothing to build excitement. Even if Illinois wins their home opener against Ball State, it will be interesting to see how their fan base shows up for a game against a directional C-USA program. The prime-time kickoff may help Illinois draw alcoholically lubricated fans but WKU probably can tune out a stadium that could only be two thirds full.

5. Bell-weather for a special season

There’s no other way to put it - the outcome here dictates the trajectory of the Tops’ season. If WKU wins, Sanford will already have accomplished something that Brohm couldn’t by beating a Big Ten team. The schedule will quickly set up for a potentially long undefeated run to start off the season and excitement of a potential New Year’s Six bowl. If WKU loses, the expectations will instantly be re-calibrated. Another Conference USA title will still be on the board but the potential for a historic season is off the table and doubt will creep into the programs mind of what exactly the season will be.

Preseason Prediction

This is one of the hardest games to predict going into the season. Not knowing exactly what we’re getting from Sanford as a head coach makes me hesitant to pick the Tops. They are bound to lose a few games along the way due to that coaching inexperience. I believe that WKU has comparable talent and by far the better quarterback situation than Illinois. The potential play makers of Foster, Dudek ,Corbin and Turner will get their points and keep the scoring of this game high. I fully expect a shootout with this game being in doubt heading into the fourth quarter. Without knowing how the Illini play week one against Ball State, I’ll take them in a nail biter with a late turnover playing a factor along the way.

Final Score Prediction- Illinois 35 WKU 31

Best places for Illinois coverage as the game gets closer

The Illini have a variety of places you’d expect from a land grant Power 5 program. Their local paper is the News-Gazette. When it comes to fan blogs, The Champaign Room (SB Nation), Writing Illini (FanSided) & Illinois Loyalty (Independent blog/message board) will give you a unique perspective of where their team is heading into the game. Finally you can check out Land of 10, the Big Ten answer to SEC Country, they have a view of Illinois through a conference-centric lense.


How do you think WKU will perform during their first road game? Will Sanford’s coaching experience hurt the team? Where do you rank this game on the schedule? Let us know in a comment below, via Twitter at @TheTowelRackWKU or on our Facebook page.

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