After an up and down win against Eastern Kentucky in the home opener, the Hilltoppers now hit the road to face the Fighting Illini in Champaign, Illinois. While the Tops are favored by Vegas to win this one, it would be their first victory against a current Big Ten school in the history of the program. To gain some more insight into this one, I talked with Brandon Birkhead of The Champaign Room about arguably the most intriguing P5 vs G5 matchup this week.
1. I know last year wasn't a great season for the Illini (3-9) so what are the collective expectations for the team this year?
Fans are all over the place when it comes to expectations. We all want to see improvement, but what's improvement? Is it making a bowl game? Is it being more competitive? Is it recruiting? Is it more production on offense?
We do have the youngest team in the country. 24 players made their college football debut for Illinois last weekend. It will be incredibly hard to see the team make a bowl game. In all it may come down to some more solid recruiting from Lovie Smith and staff, some more production out of the offense, and having some young players show some promise. This can't really even be called a rebuilding year, as the team is building from almost nothing. It's a building year to lay down the foundation of the team for the future.
2. Mikey Dudek looked good in week 1 considering it was his first game back from injury. How big of a part will he play in the offense?
He is by far our best offensive player, and he will play an instrumental part in the offense.....if the Illini can get him the ball. Dudek only caught two passes in his first game back, but if Illinois is going to have any greater success moving the ball, they will need to find a way to get him more involved.
3. In that week 1 game, Ball State hung around for pretty much the entire game before Illinois escaped with the win. What needs to improve for Illinois in week 2?
Uh....everything? The team struggled in every area of the field against Ball State. If I had to point to one key thing it would be the offensive line. The line was awful against Ball State. They couldn't open many holes in the running game and QB Chayce Crouch had little time to throw the ball. Our entire timing on offense was off because of the bad play on the line. It has to, has to, get better.
4. In my mind, one of the best things Illinois has going for them is their running back group. Is there a definitive standout of that group in your opinion?
Before the season started, I would have told you Kendrick Foster. He returns kicks, runs hard, and can make some catches out of the backfield, but now the answer may be true freshman Mike Epstein.
After one game Epstein looks to be the top RB for the Illini. He rushed for two TDs in his debut while running for 49 yards, and catching 32 more. He is a quick and powerful runner, and has great burst and vision for a freshman. He is going to be a key player for the team to build around.
5. What's the current state of the defense?
It's young, so incredibly young. Everywhere you look there are freshman starting. The team has a couple of solid LBs in Tre Watson and Del'Shawn Phillips that will help mentor a young group, but the team is heavily depending on freshman on the defensive line and in the secondary. It could really help in a few years when all these guys have experience, but the defense will suffer from many young player mistakes this year.
The defense did play ok against Ball State, but really struggled to get off the field on 3rd down. It will be a key area for the coaches to focus on for the WKU game.
6. How do you think things will shake out in this game? What's your final score prediction?
I think our offense will improve and be able to move the ball more efficiently than week one, but I expect Illinois to struggle on defense against senior QB Mike White. I think Illinois will hang tough for a while, but WKU will pull away in the end and win by a couple of TDs. 35-24 WKU.
BONUS: Where should Western Kentucky fans making the trip to Champaign go to eat while they're in town?
I'd strongly recommend Black Dog for some fantastic BBQ, other places to highlight are Seven Saints, and Destihl (make their own craft beer in house). Sadly these are all off campus, but downtown Champaign actually isn't too far away.