- Date/Time: Saturday, October 2nd (11:00 AM CT/12:00 PM ET)
- Location: Memorial Stadium, Champaign, IL
- Vegas Odds: Illinois -10.5 via BetMGM
- TV: Big Ten Network (Chris Vosters, Stanley Jackson, Krystle Rich)
- Radio: WDWS 1400 AM Busey Bank Illini Sports Network (Brian Barnhart, Martin O’Donnell, Michael Martin) // WZGV 730 The Game ESPN Charlotte (Matt Swierad, Al Wallace, Bobby Rosinski)
Gearing up for their final non-conference matchup on the slate for 2021, this showdown with Charlotte presents a must-win situation for the Fighting Illini before they jump back into the thick of Big Ten conference play. Since beating Nebraska in Week Zero, Illinois has dropped four games straight, including three by seven points or less. Last week’s 13-9 heartbreaker with Purdue only amplified the inconsistencies in their offensive attack, as the Boilermakers were down a receiver including their top two running backs, lost the turnover and time of possession battle, and still found a way to beat Illinois with shaky play from two different quarterbacks.
“Everybody wants to concentrate on why we lost - and believe me I’m diving into that knee deep and going through it - but I want you to understand that, it’s actually a step in the right direction to be disappointed that we finished close. I can’t accept that, I don’t want to finish close, but we’re in the battle. We’re in the competition, we’re right there knocking on the door, and that’s why it hurts so much,” said Illini coach Bret Bielema.
- Pound the rock: Notching his first career 100-yard game, freshman tailback Josh McCray exploded for 156 yards on 24 touches in what was an impressive breakout performance on the ground for the Enterprise, AL native last week. A similar performance this week wouldn’t be shocking as this Illini ground attack will be able to exploit a Charlotte front that ranks an abysmal 124th in the country in rushing yards allowed per game.
- Continue to force takeaways: Having forced a turnover in seven consecutive contests dating back to last year’s December 12th loss to Northwestern, this is obviously a hard-nosed defensive unit that can be disruptive enough to get the ball back in their hands. The 49ers hold a 2-8 record in their last 10 road games where they gave the ball away at least once.
- Get healthy: This is an Illinois team that’s been ravaged by injuries, with Hansen and Witherspoon out on defense, Doug Kramer wearing a boot missing time, and quarterback Brandon Peters getting back into the groove after a shoulder injury has cost him time since Nebraska. Hopeful that they’ll be getting some of these guys back this week, the Illini pose a bigger threat to Charlotte with their leaders on the field before jumping back into the Big Ten gauntlet.
Clearing themselves from the smoke after a game with MTSU that was nothing but firepower, Will Healy’s 49ers could break new ground into uncharted territory this weekend with a win, as the Charlotte football program could have its best ever start through five games with a win at Memorial Stadium on Saturday. Dusting their work pants off after a disappointing affair in the rain with Georgia State the week before, Charlotte found a way to win a shootout with the Blue Raiders that saw a combined 1,061 yards of offense and five different lead changes. The victory marked just the second time since joining Conference USA back in 2015 that Charlotte’s been able to put their first league result of the season down in the win column.
“Our biggest thing was responding. We lost last week, we knew that we needed this win and it was a conference game. We have a Power Five opponent next week with Illinois, so it was just about gaining momentum for our offense. That’s what we needed after only putting up seven points last week,” said wide receiver Grant DuBose.
- Ride the lightning: Senior quarterback Chris Reynolds is already a two-time C-USA Offensive Player of the Week in 2021 ranking inside the top 40 in the country in both passing yards and overall passer rating. Two talented targets on the outside in Grant DuBose and Victor Tucker give the Illinois secondary a more than decent challenge when defending Charlotte’s game plan through the air.
- Dominate possession: To put it into perspective, this Charlotte football team ranks sixth in the country in time of possession, averaging nearly 35 minutes a game with the football. If the defense can keep chunk plays to a minimum and the offense stays fluid, this one will stay a lot closer later than the Vegas odds indicate.
- Embrace being the underdog: ESPN’s Football Power Index currently has Illinois projected as a 79.2% favorite. That being said, the Fighting Illini are 5-5 in their last 10 games against Group of Five foes, and 5-6 all-time against Conference USA opponents dating back to 1997. If there ever was a time for another Power 5 upset, it’s definitely in the cards this weekend in Champaign.