Western Kentucky came into Champaign on Saturday night the favorite to win by more than a touchdown. The reality of the situation ended up being the Tops were lucky to not be shut out as they struggled to move the ball all game.
Western Kentucky started the game with the ball, but quickly left the field after a three and out. This would be the first of seven punts on the night for WKU.
On their second drive of the game, Illinois scored the first points of the game with a 37 yard field goal by Chase McLaughlin. WKU couldn’t muster an answer on the next drive and turned it over on downs. The two teams then traded punts before McLaughlin added another field goal from twenty yards out.
The next four possessions would all be punts. The last of those four would pin WKU inside their own five. The Illini brought the pressure on Mike White and the Tops’ quarterback tossed it right into the waiting arms of Illinois linebacker Julian Jones. Jones returned the pick just a few short steps into the end zone to make it 13-0 after the extra point. WKU were unable to answer and lost the ball on strip sack by Illinois’ Bobby Roundtree.
In the first half, WKU gained 123 total offensive yards with only 11 of those on the ground. They were also 0 for 6 on third down conversions and 0 for 1 on fourth down conversions in the first half.
On the opening possession of the second half, Illinois drove 84 yards in 15 plays, capped with a nine yard touchdown run by quarterback Chayce Crouch where he hurdled two WKU defenders. The next three possessions would be punts.
Then, Western seemed to catch a break when Antwon Kincade was able to pick off Crouch in Illini territory. The Tops were able to capitalize on the turnover when White scored what would be the only points of the night for WKU on a two yard touchdown run.
After an Illini punt on the next possession, WKU had their last chance to get something going with about four and a half minutes remaining. They started it off with 15 yard completion to Nacarius Fant. But the next four plays would be a sack, followed by three incompletions to turn it over on downs. Illinois would then run out the clock to secure their victory.
Defensively, this wasn’t really a bad day out for Western Kentucky. Safety Devon Key and linebacker Joel Iyiegbuniwe led the way with 12 tackles each on the way to holding the Illinois offense to three hundred total yards and only 107 through the air.
The Tops’ offense, however, was disappointing by the standards they set with their performances the last year. They earned a respectable 238 passing yards, but netted only six in the rushing game. The offensive line really were not able to create any kind of push against the Illinois defense which was mostly freshmen and sophomores.
The offense also finished 2 for 12 on third down conversions and 0 for 2 on fourth down conversions. Additionally, Illinois is now only the second team after Alabama to keep Mike White from throwing a touchdown in their game against him since he became the starter at WKU.
On the bright side, Nacarius Fant had a career day hauling in ten balls for 110 receiving yards. Mike White also hit Quin Jernighan and Lucky Jackson each five times. The pair combined for fifty six receiving yards. White was however sacked twice and hurried four times, further evidence of the fact that the offensive line needs to improve quickly and exponentially.
Western Kentucky now faces the challenge of moving on from a loss like this and must prepare to start Conference USA league play next week against Louisiana Tech in Bowling Green.