Illinois hosts Western Illinois, eager to find footing
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — Illinois, looking to find its footing after a surprisingly tough comeback win against Kent State to open the season, in theory gets another tune-up game at home Saturday against Western Illinois.
Coach Lovie Smith has heard that one before. As a result, he isn’t taking the Leathernecks for granted.
“Western Illinois is a good football team, and they played well this past week,” Smith said. “For us, it’s a state school that we’re playing. We’re the flagship university in the state, so we understand how big this game is.”
The Leathernecks lost a heartbreaker to Montana State 26-23 last week, with running back Steve McShane scoring three touchdowns, two receiving and one rushing. Quarterback Sean McGuire passed for 164 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions in the loss. Western Illinois (0-1) led Montana State the entire game until the final minutes.
“It was a tough one,” said first-year coach Jared Elliott. “I had a feeling it was going to be a dogfight.”
Smith knows the feeling. Illinois was down 17-3 at the half against Kent State, a game many figured would be an easy win. Led by senior transfer quarterback AJ Bush, Illinois outscored Kent State 28-7 in the second half for a 31-24 win.
“Luckily, there are two halves in a game,” Smith said. “I couldn’t be more proud how we handled that second half.”
Illinois receiver Mike Dudek injured his knee late in the Kent State game and is out for the season, effectively ending his collegiate career since he has no eligibility left. Wide receivers Dominic Stampley and Carlos Sandy will be called upon to help pick up the slack, Smith said.
Backup quarterback Cam Thomas left the team for personal reasons this week. No other details were made available. Thomas, a sophomore, played in four games with two starts at quarterback as a true freshman in 2017. He did not play against Kent State. True freshman Matt Robinson and M.J. Rivers are expected to play behind Bush.
Elliott’s squad presents a different look for the Illinois defense, something Smith has drilled his team on all week. Last year, Western boasted the 16th-best scoring offense in the FCS.
“Offensively, (Western Illinois) is a traditional offense,” Smith said. “More of a two back, regular personnel type. We haven’t gone against an offense like this for a long period of time. There was a time when most offenses were traditional, so when you get ready for a spread offense, there’s a lot of things you have to cover, and that’s where we are this week.”
JAKE IS BACK
Illinois linebacker Jake Hansen had a tremendous game against Kent State. The junior tied a school record with six tackles for a loss and finished with 15 tackles in the game. Hansen missed all of last season after suffering a knee injury during training camp. He played in all 12 games in 2016 as a freshman, starting one.
“We’ve waited for Jake to come out for a long period of time,” Smith said. “He’s healthy now, lots of tackles, I think he had six officially but we counted seven tackles for loss. He played outstanding ball. It was just one of those really outstanding games.”
Western Illinois and Illinois have faced each other only twice, and Illinois won both games. Despite four takeaways in their last meeting, the Leathernecks dropped the 2015 decision, 44-0.