Illini see W. Michigan as a test they must pass

The players for No. 24 Illinois are saying all the right things

heading into Saturday’s game against Western Michigan.

Those guys have a good football team. That quarterback can hurt

you. They might be the best team in the MAC.

But the Illini (3-0) just might mean it when it comes to the

Broncos. Western Michigan (2-1, 1-0 MAC) beat Illinois the last

time the teams faced each other in 2008

”It was a game that was really embarrassing for some of our

guys,” said defensive coordinator Vic Koenning, who was hired

after the 2009 season but has heard plenty about the Broncos.

”They’re good enough to embarrass you.”

Embarrassing might not quite explain how bad it was.

The Illini, struggling to live up to the expectations of their

2007 Rose Bowl season, had opened the season in the Top 25 but were

5-4 when they went to Ford Field in early November. Illinois lost

23-17 in front of just 12,800 fans in the cavernous NFL stadium,

setting off a string of losses that saw them finish 5-7.

Broncos coach Bill Cubit said that Illini team, like this one,

was big, fast and strong.

”They’ll be one of the best looking football teams we’ll

play,” Cubit said. ”But I thought that was the same way when we

played them before. They looked the part.”

Illinois would appear to be the biggest challenge on the

Broncos’ schedule, a ranked Big Ten team riding an unbeaten streak

that, dating to last season, is up to four games. Beating rival

Central Michigan last week 44-14 in the MAC opener was nice, but

this is something else.

”I want to see how good we are,” Western Michigan quarterback

Alex Carder said.

The Illini were riding high after a 17-14 win last Saturday

night over then-No. 22 Arizona State and next week is the Big Ten

opener on homecoming against Northwestern. Western Michigan would

appear to be a trap game if ever there was one.

Illini coach Ron Zook said his veteran players started leading

their teammates past that hurdle after the win over the Sun Devils.

Senior offensive lineman Jack Cornell reminded his teammates in the

locker room how it felt to leave Ford Field a loser.

”His thing was, `Enjoy the win, but be smart. I was there (in

2008), and it wasn’t so much fun,”’ Zook said. ”I thought that

was impressive.”

If there’s anything the Illini can carry over from the win over

ASU, it might be Koenning’s defensive scheme and its result. The

Illini relentlessly pressured quarterback Brock Osweiler, sacking

him six times and forcing three turnovers.

The Broncos’ offense averages 273 yards a game, most of it

through the air. Carder is usually looking for wide receiver Jordan

White, who has 29 catches for 363 yards and two touchdowns.

”He really is a special player,” Carder said.

Illinois pass rush specialist Michael Buchanan wasn’t sure early

in the week just how the Illini would approach the Broncos offense,

but said he wouldn’t mind seeing a heavy dose of the wide-open

attacking scheme Koenning used to hammer the Sun Devils.

”We do see some similarities,” Buchanan said. ”Whatever coach

Vic calls, whatever type of game plan he brings out, we’re always

confident in it.”

Zook said the Broncos may have another motivator when they come

to Champaign. Many of the players were courted by Big Ten school

before ultimately being passed over. Zook said he looked at some of

them himself.

But he doesn’t expect his own players to be complacent. There

has just been too much talk this week about what went wrong in 2008

and what the Broncos can do to allow a letdown.

”That’s a tough, well-coached, get-after-your-tail football

team,” he said of Western Michigan. ”I don’t see it

happening.”