- Time and date: Saturday, September 23 at 3:30 p.m. ET
- Network: Big Ten Network
- Location: Memorial Stadium — Champaign, IL
- Spread: Illinois (-15.5)
- Over/under: 45.5
- All-time series: No previous meetings
Setting the scene
It’s the final non-conference matchup for both Florida Atlantic (1-2, 0-0 AAC) and Illinois (1-2, 0-1 Big Ten). It’s been a less-than-ideal start for both programs alike, dropping Week 3 contests in lopsided fashion to the likes of Clemson and Penn State.
These programs have never squared off before, so Saturday afternoon in Champaign, IL marks the first time the Owls make the trek to the Land of Lincoln to battle the Fighting Illini.
Florida Atlantic Owls outlook
The worst-case scenario struck Florida Atlantic in the second quarter in a 48-14 loss to Clemson. Starting quarterback Casey Thompson was lost for the season when he tore his ACL while throwing against a blitz. Thompson, a former starter at Texas and Nebraska, was one of the most established quarterbacks in the AAC and the Owls will sorely miss their veteran leader.
Luckily for Florida Atlantic, they tote a 3-year starter in the quarterback room. Daniel Richardson served as the No. 1 signal caller for Central Michigan for several years and he’ll take over for Thompson in an offense conducted by coordinator Charlie Frye — the same coordinator who coached Richardson in 2020. In the past, Richardson has taken good care of the ball with touchdown-to-interception ratios of 24-to-6 and 15-to-5 in his first two seasons starting for the Chippewas. But the 5’10” Miami native has an absolute howitzer of an arm and isn’t afraid to take frequent deep shots.
Richardson is equipped with one of the best receivers in the conference in LaJohntay Wester who ranks first in the entire FBS with 30 receptions. Wester has been primarily a short-yardage threat this year with a season-long reception spanning 27 yards, but he’s picked apart defenses with speed off of screens en route to 264 yards — second among all AAC receivers. Wester is fresh off back-to-back 12-catch, 100-yard games so he’ll be utilized often to get Richardson into a rhythm. He has nearly triple the amount of receptions as any other Owl, but Tony Johnson should play the role as second fiddle with 11 catches for 132 yards on the year.
The passing offense has been the better of the two elements for Florida Atlantic, which has struggled to score with just 24 points in two outings against FBS competition this year. The run game ranks 119th nationally, just glazing over 100 yards per contest. One reason is injuries. Running back Larry McCammon III (148 yards on 7.4 yards per carry) missed the Clemson game and his status for Saturday is unknown. But the team lost backup running back Zuberi Mobley for the season, so Kobe Lewis — a 1,000-yard rusher for Central Michigan in 2019 — will have to step up to get the unit jump-started.
Florida Atlantic’s defense hasn’t been stellar or terrible by any means, but it lies somewhere in the middle. The Owls limited a talented Ohio offense to 17 points by forcing three turnovers, but outside of that game, the takeaways haven’t sustained at that high level. They rank 79th in passing yards allowed per game and 84th in rushing yards allowed, and turning one of these areas into a strength could go a long way.
The safety tandem of Dwight Toombs II and Jarron Morris consists of the must-watch players in this unit. Morris, a Texas State transfer, is one of their best coverage specialists with a 72-yard pick-six in addition to a team-high four pass breakups on the season. Meanwhile, Toombs thrived a year ago with 64 tackles and three picks, and he’s off to a similar start with 15 takedowns a quarter of the way through the regular season.
Illinois Fighting Illini outlook
The Fighting Illini have battled one of the more challenging schedules thus far, one completely devoid of FCS competition. Illinois is a miracle fourth down conversion against Toledo away from 0-3 with lopsided losses to Kansas and Penn State moving the team to sub-.500 territory.
Self-inflicted errors have certainly factored into these losses and even the almost-loss against Toledo. The Fighting Illini were flagged 10 times for 100 yards in the opener, and while the penalty numbers haven’t been as extreme since, they’ve certainly factored in with 105 penalty yards in the past two losses. Giveaways have also been overwhelming, and Illinois lost the turnover battle 5-0 against Penn State — and it was only a 17-point loss.
That’s a testament to how well the defense played against an AP Top 10 opponent, forcing four three-and-outs and holding the Nittany Lions to four field goal attempts. Four of these turnovers occurred in Fighting Illini territory, so only allowing three touchdowns is a huge win for first-year defensive coordinator Aaron Henry and his unit.
Illinois exhibits one of the best defensive linemen in college football in the front of its 3-4 scheme. Jer’Zhan Newton was a First Team All-Big Ten selection last year with 5.5 sacks and 14.0 tackles for loss. The defensive end/tackle hybrid is off to a strong start in 2023 with a pair of sacks and a pair of deflections at the line of scrimmage, and that’s with team’s scheming him as their No. 1 focus. Illinois hopes to establish a stronger pass rush outside of Newton, as the future NFL Draft pick is responsible for two of just four sacks on the season.
Even with impressive defensive stops against Penn State, the Fighting Illini are 123rd in run defense and 97th in pass defense, and they’ve allowed points on all 15 opponent trips to the red zone. Preventing Florida Atlantic from establishing any momentum on the ground will be of utmost importance to remain in control from start to finish Saturday.
Additionally, the offense can’t afford another onslaught of turnovers. Three turnovers transpired in a 9-play span in the first quarter last Saturday, completely sucking the life out of the offense early on. Illinois will need responsible ball security from quarterback Luke Altmyer, who has three touchdowns and seven interceptions with 571 passing yards on the season.
The Fighting Illini haven’t passed for more than 210 yards in a contest, but they exhibit big playmaking talent at receiver, namely Isaiah Williams. The junior leads the team in receiving by a country mile with at least five catches in each outing, including 99 yards in Week 2 at Kansas.
Illinois aims to do the majority of its offensive damage on the ground using running back Reggie Love in addition to Altmyer’s talent as a runner. Love leads the group with 163 yards this season, while the quarterback adds 145 to the mix. To get an idea of Altmyer’s scrambling ability, he averages 5.6 yards per carry and that is net of nine sacks. If Illinois can improve their pass protection and allow their quarterback more time to operate, a lot will fall into place, including the limitation of turnovers.
Illinois’ defense, which lost the likes of Devon Witherspoon, Jartavius Martin, and Sidney Brown to the NFL in April, is hoping to see across-the-board improvement. This unit was placed in a bevy of tough situations against Penn State but played well for the most part — limiting the Nittany Lions to 30 despite a 5-0 turnover battle difference, so Illinois hopes to use that performance as a springboard going forward.
Florida Atlantic is thrust into a difficult situation without its starting quarterback, but the backup Daniel Richardson has vast experience and even won a Sun Bowl over Washington State. Thus, the Owls probably won’t harness their new quarterback too much and rely on a run game which has been largely ineffective this year.
Still, Illinois’ defense should force several three-and-outs, and the Fighting Illini run game featuring Reggie Love and Luke Altmyer will lead the way with many methodical drives. In the end, the Fighting Illini control the trenches on both sides en route to a two-score win to conclude non-conference play.
Prediction: Illinois 31, Florida Atlantic 17