Middle Tennessee-Illinois Preview

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) How does an Illini team already playing under uncertain circumstances respond after a 48-14 blowout loss?

Looking for a confidence-building win before Big Ten play begins, Illinois will host Middle Tennessee (2-1) on Saturday. The problem is that MTSU has scored 70 or more points twice and lost only to Alabama so far this season.

”Any time you’re averaging 51 points a game that’s saying something,” interim Illinois coach Bill Cubit said.

The Illini (2-1) opened the season with two relatively easy wins, only to get hammered last week at North Carolina. It was the first for Illinois under Cubit, who took over when Tim Beckman was abruptly fired a week before the season started.

Cubit acknowledged this week that his team’s confidence has been delicate the past few seasons, brittle enough to break if any one thing – like a 34-point loss- went wrong.

”The first couple of years I’ve been here, we let things like that kind of snowball,” he said, adding that he believes this season can be different. ”Just because we lost one, the end of the world has not happened.”

Some things to watch as the Illini host the Blue Raiders:

THE DROPS

Illinois knew from week one this season that the receiving corps it once counted as a strength would be a question mark. Injuries have sidelined two of quarterback Wes Lunt’s top targets, Mike Dudek (ACL tear) and Justin Hardee (broken foot). Neither has played a game and there’s no indication that Dudek – last season’s top receiver – will be back any time soon.

But against the Tar Heels, Cubit counted nine dropped passes.

”I played wideout. I find it hard to believe you can drop that many balls,” Cubit said, adding that the problem might be at least in part mental. ”Sometimes a ball comes down there (and receivers think, `I better not drop it, I better not drop it.”’

MTSU PASSING

Middle Tennessee is averaging 310 passing yards a game, 25th in the country, and Cubit gives much of the credit to quarterback Brent Stockstill, son of Blue Raiders coach Rick Stockstill.

The redshirt freshman is 66-99 for 891 yards, nine touchdowns and just two interceptions. When Cubit was head coach at Western Michigan he tried to recruit Brent Stockstill.

”He’s crafty, smart, a coach’s kid. He has great grit,” Cubit said. ”He just runs the whole show.”

BLUE RAIDER RECEIVERS

While Illinois’ receivers are a major question, Middle Tennessee’s are a strength. Richie James, Ed Batties and Terry Pettis each have more than 200 yards receiving. James has 17 catches for 271 yards and five touchdowns.

”I think our whole offense should have a lot of confidence because it’s not just Brent,” Rick Stockstill said. ”Each week there has been a different receiver who has been the guy.”

KICKER WOES

It was only a footnote in the 34-point loss at North Carolina, but the Illini relived last season’s kicking problems when Taylor Zalewksi missed both of his field goal attempts. He had been 4-4. In 2014, Zalewski and David Reisner combined to go 9-17 on field goals.

SCHEDULE CHANGE

Middle Tennessee will be Illinois’ fourth non-conference opponent, the last one the Illini will face for at least a while. Big Ten teams will start playing nine conference games in 2016. Next fall the Illini will play Murray State, North Carolina and Western Michigan at home, take a week off and then start a nine-week conference grind that begins at Nebraska and ends at Northwestern with no break.

Follow David Mercer on Twitter: (at)davidmercerAP