Fighting Illini Season Preview

Written by Garin Turner

Photo Credit: Trevor Mahlmann

On Saturday, The Fighting Illini take the field in Lovie Smith’s second year as the head coach. On the other side of the field will be The Ball State Cardinals. The game is at 11am central time and can be seen on the Big Ten Network or BTN on the go. You can listen to the game on the Illini Sports Network or on SirusXM 83. The game is at Memorial Stadium in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois.

All-time meetings
This is the second meeting between the two teams. The previous game was a 28-17 victory for the Illini at Memorial Stadium in 2007.

No place like home
The Fighting Illini have won 19 consecutive games at Memorial Stadium. That gives them the fourth-longest active streak in the nation behind Florida (27), Oklahoma State (21), and Wisconsin (21). The Illini have a record of 89-33-5 all time in home-openers. The Illini also boast an 80-42-5 record in season-openers and are 57-27-4 when they play their first home game of the season. Furthermore, the Illini have won the last 11 season-openers at Memorial Stadium dating back to 1997.

Fountain of Youth
There are 101 players on the 2017 roster. Nine of those are seniors which is tied for second-least in FBS behind Georgia Southern (8) and Wake Forest (9). There’s only 25 upperclassmen on the roster. The nine aforementioned seniors and 16 juniors. That leaves 76 underclassmen including: 22 sophomores and 54 freshmen (36 true-freshmen and 18 redshirt freshmen).

No Cupcakes
The Illini will play nine teams who played in a bowl game last season. Only five other teams will play against more in 2017. Three of the Illini’s opponents are ranked in the preseason AP Top 25. No. 2 Ohio State, No. 9 Wisconsin, and No. 19 South Florida. Two more of the Illini opponents this year, Nebraska and Northwestern received votes.

Players to watch
Mike Dudek, WR: After having a two-year battle with the injury bug, the 2014 Freshman all-American is finally healthy and ready to contribute like he did three years ago.

Chayce Crouch, QB: Lovie named Crouch the starting quarterback for 2017 during spring practice. Last year Crouch led the Illini to a win against Rutgers on the road in his first ever college start. Unfortunately for Crouch, he got injured and was out the rest of the year. He looks to stay healthy and build upon the Rutgers game and practice this season.

Malik Turner, WR: The senior is looking to continue where he left off in 2016. He led all Illini receivers with 48 catches for 712 yards (14.8 yards per catch) and six TDs en route to an honorable mention All-Big Ten.

Tre Watson, LB: Watson averaged 10.3 tackles per game in the Big Ten which ranked him second behind Tegray Scales of Indiana, 104. In the last four games of the season, Watson stepped up his game with 48 tackles. He was tied for the team lead with three forced fumbles last year.

Ball State
The Cardinals have experience at quarterback. Both junior Riley Neal and senior Jack Milas took snaps last year. Ball State also uses a balanced rushing attack as they rotate five different running backs. James Gilbert, Darian Green, and Riley Neal combined for 2,183 yards rushing in 2016.

Ball State is a very disciplined team. In 2016, they lead the MAC and ranked fifth in the fewest penalty yards per game at 35.5 and the fewest penalties per game at 4.0.

The Cardinals are looking to return to a bowl game for the first time since 2013 when they were in the GoDaddy Bowl.

Keys to the game
Illinois: First and foremost, the Illini need to get through this game with as minimal injuries as possible. Injuries have derailed any progress for the Illini in the last few years. They’ll be looking to change that starting on Saturday. The youth has to mature quickly especially before the Big Ten conference starts. This is the first game where they get to hit somebody other than a teammate so it will be interesting to see how they respond. Keeping their emotions in check and not shooting themselves in the foot with penalties and turnovers will build confidence.  With Dudek back, this will take pressure off Turner and give Ball State something to think about in the passing game.

The defense needs to cause pressure in the backfield and stop the run game of the Cardinals. Lovie Smith is known for his defenses and in year two he’s expecting a lot more on that side of the ball. The Illini need to create some turnovers because Ball State won’t give them any freebees due to their lack of penalties.

Ball State:
This is a winnable game for the Cardinals. This could be a continuation of the MAC beats BIG narrative in the past few seasons. For this to happen, they need to run the ball and wear out the defense. They’re young and inexperienced. If Ball State uses the two-quarterback approach, both need to produce when they’re called upon.

For the defense, Ball State is in a unique situation. They don’t have a single player on the roster who’s started at linebacker. That could be a problem that the Illini try to exploit. The defensive line needs to win more than it loses to take the pressure off the line backing core.

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