Michigan, Illinois to be on guard against in-state opponents
The big rivalry games in the Big Ten are still a couple months away, but September nonconference meetings between teams from the same state also have a way of getting the juices of players and fans going.
There are four of those on Saturday, headlined by Penn State at Pittsburgh and Iowa State at Iowa. The ones involving directional schools — Western Michigan at Michigan and Western Illinois at Illinois — aren’t to be forgotten, though. Those games create lifetime memories for the underdogs, win or lose, and the favorites must be on guard.
Take Western Michigan. The Broncos still have players from the 2016 Mid-American Conference championship team that went 13-0 before losing a hard-fought game against Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl. Last season, they opened Tim Lester’s first season as coach against a fourth-ranked Southern California at the Coliseum and were tied in the fourth quarter before losing 49-31.
For all those experiences, Lester said, the 100-mile trip from Kalamazoo to the Big House creates an even higher level of excitement, especially for the 50 players who grew up in the state and some of whom surely wanted to play for the Wolverines but didn’t get a scholarship offer.
“For a lot of these in-state guys it’s a big opportunity,” Lester said. “When we go out there for warmups, our kids will look around and have cool memories. They won’t necessarily remember all the memories of the Coliseum.”
The Broncos are 0-6 all-time against Michigan and will be paid a $1.2 million guarantee for the first game between the schools since 2011. The Broncos, coming off a 55-42 home loss to Syracuse, are 28-point underdogs and a 279th consecutive crowd of more than 100,000 will be on hand.
“A lot of our guys are amped up to go to the Big House,” running back LeVante Bellamy said. “You have to tune out the crowd. The crowd should never have an impact on the game. Whether there’s one person in the stands or it’s 100,000 or 500,000, you still have to put on the pads and play these games.”
The Broncos have Michigan’s attention. The Wolverines are coming off a disappointing loss at Notre Dame, and Western Michigan is riding some momentum after generating 452 yards and scoring 35 points in the second half against Syracuse.
“We’re up and at it and on it, and we’re going to need to be,” Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh said. “Watching the tape, they’re an extremely good football team. Whether they’re playing at home or on the road, they’re a very formidable team.”
Illinois is hosting a Western Illinois team that appeared in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs last season and has beaten a team from the Bowl Subdivision two straight years.
Illini coach Lovie Smith said he expects a “fired-up” Leathernecks team to make the 140-mile trip to Champaign. Last week, Illinois struggled to beat Kent State, which hasn’t won more than four games in a season since 2012. Smith, 6-19 in his third season, said every opponent is dangerous and he expects to get the Leathernecks’ best shot.
“We realize who we are,” he said. “We know a lot of players down there. We’re the flagship university, that’s a part of it. As far as we’re concerned, we show up and play whoever is on our schedule. We need to start strong this week and play better than we did the last week.”
Three of the five FCS wins over FBS teams so far this season have come in matchups of schools in close proximity — Villanova over Temple, UC Davis over San Jose State and North Carolina A&T over East Carolina.
The Leathernecks lost 21-0 and 44-0 in their only two previous meetings with Illinois, and they’re 0-9 all-time against Big Ten opponents. They’ll be paid $425,000 for the game a week after losing their opener at Montana State.
“Whether you’re FCS or a mid-major, you’re going to play these bigger games every year, so a lot of our more veteran players already have experienced being in these types of games,” WIU coach Jared Elliott said. “Football is football, and you try not to make it too big a deal and add another wrinkle in it. It doesn’t matter where we’re playing. It’s 100 yards and you still have four downs.”
Elliott, who didn’t allow his players to do interviews this week, acknowledged this game is a special occasion for his 45 players who grew up in the state and get to play against former high school teammates or opponents.
“It’s great for us FCS schools to be able to play these bigger schools that are close to us geographically,” he said. “I think it’s good for the fan base and college football in general. Whenever we have an opportunity to do these games, we need to do them and take advantage of them.”