Outsiders viewed last week’s home contest against ACC opponent North Carolina as a true test for Illinois. First-year coach Lovie Smith saw it differently.
Larry Fedora began his rebuild in Chapel Hill before the 2012 season. The Tar Heels entered the season in the Top 25 after winning their second Coastal Division championship in four years last fall. Not that he was conceding the game to North Carolina, but Smith realized the challenge.
Smith instead envisioned the matchup with Western Michigan this Saturday (3 p.m. CT, ESPN News) as an appraisal for the state of his Illini.
“Looking at our schedule before the season started, you knew that this would be one of those games which will truly measure how far we’ve come, and that will be the case,” Smith told reporters at his Monday news conference.
After a Week 1, 52-3 stomping of Murray State, Illinois was overwhelmed, 48-23, by North Carolina. The outcomes contradicted each other, albeit with the competition playing a role.
Western Michigan provides the litmus test. Good Big Ten teams are expected to beat Mid-American Conference opponents at home.
That takes us back to the question at hand — Is Illinois good? The Broncos could very well provide the answer.
Western Michigan is favored to win this game by 3.5 points after following up a 22-21 victory at Northwestern in the season opener with a 70-21 beatdown of North Carolina Central on Saturday.
“We don’t need a lot of motivation. We lost this past week and that’s the motivation enough for us to play a better game. I don’t see the University of Illinois being underdogs to many people here at home,” Smith said.
What the Illini needs is to play better than it did against North Carolina. And that’s for 60 minutes.
Illinois trailed the Tar Heels, 31-23 early in the fourth quarter. The visitors finished the game with 17 unanswered points.
“We didn’t play well enough this past Saturday to win, simple as that. We had a perfect stage to take a step, maybe a little bit quicker than we were ready to take but we will learn from this video, Smith said.
The Illini committed 13 penalties resulting in 99 yards against North Carolina. They also fumbled the ball six times, but fortunately for them only lost one.
“We just can’t shoot ourselves in the foot. It’s kind of self explanatory. We know what to work on. We’ll tighten it up it up. There’s nothing discouraging. Guys played their butts off,” Illinois Center Joe Spencer told the team’s website after the game.
Broncos coach P.J. Fleck, 36, is one of the rising young stars in his profession. Since taking over in Kalamazoo before the 2013 campaign, Western Michigan has risen from MAC doormat to the first bowl game in program history in which it beat Middle Tennessee State, 45-31, during December’s Popeyes Bahamas Bowl.
“Western Michigan is a good football team; a good, undefeated football team that has beaten a Big Ten opponent. They put a lot of points on the board last week,” Smith said.
North Carolina piled up 462 yards of offense against the Illini. The Tar Heels averaged 13.9 yards per pass completion.
Western Michigan quarterback Zach Terrell is poised to challenge the Illinois defense. Through two games, the fifth-year senior sports a 167.64 passer rating courtesy of completing 41 of 58 throws for 473 yards and five touchdowns without an interception.
Senior receiver Corey Davis (14 catches, 220 yards, 3 TDs) serves as Terrell’s top target. Sophomore running back Jamauri Bogan (39 carries, 234 yards, 2 TDs) balances the Bronco attack.
“Offensively, they have a system that they believe in and I saw them running that system (against Northwestern). Part of their system, of course, there’s option involved. They have excellent running backs. They have great skill at the wide receiver position. When you have all that you can end up having 70 points on the board any given Saturday so it’ll be a big challenge for our defense,” Smith said.
Sophomore running back Ke’Sawhn Vaughn has been Illinois’ brightest spot on offense. The Nashville product rushed 15 times for 116 yards and a score against North Carolina.
Quarterback Wes Lunt has been steady if unspectacular. The senior has posted a 139.56 rating, completing 32 of 56 passes for 353 yards and five touchdowns without an interception.