Breaking it down: Illinois hoping to shake off ugly UNC beatdown
Who: Middle Tennessee State vs. Illinois
When: Saturday, 4 p.m. ET
Where: Memorial Stadium, Illinois
TV: ESPN News
Spread: Illinois -6
Matchup to watch: MTSU receivers vs. Illinois secondary
Why do I say receiver(s)? Well, the Blue Raiders have three studs. Ed’Marques Battles, Terry Pettis and Richie James are all over 200 yards receiving this year, and have been interchangeable options for Brent Stockstill. All Illinois has to do is prevent them from running wild. Even though the Illini was torched for 48 points against UNC last week, the secondary actually wasn’t horrible. Eaton Spence had a pick, and no Tarheel wideout had 60 yards receiving. This group might be even better than last week’s. Illinois could use a big play or two from Clayton Fejedelem and V’Angelo Bentley to get the defense rolling again.
Thing I’m excited for: Josh Ferguson’s increased role
Lost in the shuffle of the blowout loss to UNC was the fact that Ferguson had a career-high 22 carries. That’s a shocking stat for a guy who’s in his fourth year as a starter. The Illini have been so insistent on making sure the versatile back is able to provide a lift in the passing game, that they don’t give him the typical workload of a true No. 1. Bill Cubit should throw that theory out the window. So what if he doesn’t have the size most Big Ten starting running backs have? This guy needs to play a bigger role in establishing some balance for the offense. Saturday would be a good time for that to take shape.
Number to remember: 71.5
That’s how many points the Blue Raiders are averaging against teams that aren’t Alabama. Weak competition or not, they can light it up better than Kent State or Western Illinois. MTSU is coming off a 73-14 win against Charlotte in which it put up 42 points in the first quarter. They had four skill players rack up over 100 yards from scrimmage, not including Stockstill’s near perfect 369 yards and five scores. After the tackling we saw from Illinois last week, this one could easily turn into a shootout. Wes Lunt and Co. can’t afford to waste possessions like they did last week because if MTSU is clicking, Illinois could find itself in an awfully steep hole.
Prediction: Middle Tennessee State 38, Illinois 35
To be clear, I’m not a believer in momentum. Just because Illinois is coming off a game in which it played poor defensively doesn’t mean that will happen again. I am, however, a believer in weighing games against actual competition more than those against cupcakes. UNC exposed the fact that Illinois’ passing game isn’t as polished as its first two games would indicate. Geronimo Allison is a nice option for Wes Lunt, but there are still no true deep threats to stretch the field without Mike Dudek. Outside of the blowout against Kent State, Lunt’s decision-making has been questionable at best. I think he tries to force a couple too many throws in this one and MTSU’s offense capitalizes to pull off the upset in Champaign.