Western Michigan heads to Illinois as a favorite
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) If Illinois needed any reason to not look past its Mid-American Conference opponent on Saturday, the odds makers provided it.
Western Michigan (2-0) comes to Champaign undefeated and favored to beat the Illini by three.
After last week's 25-point home loss to North Carolina, Illinois (1-1) needs no extra reason to take the Broncos seriously, coach Lovie Smith insists. He did, though, seem to express some disbelief over the line.
''We don't need a lot of motivation. We lost this last week, and that's motivation enough,'' Smith said. ''I don't see the University of Illinois being underdogs to many people here at home.''
The Broncos are just two weeks removed from a 22-21 win at Northwestern , and looking for a rare shot at two wins over Big Ten teams in one season for a non-Power Five school. Broncos coach P.J. Fleck grew up in Illinois and played at another MAC school, Northern Illinois. He said his players come into games against Power Five teams sensing both opportunity and, if they ease up, peril.
''They know how easy it is to go back to 1-11 – just like that,'' Fleck, said, snapping his fingers. He was referring to the Broncos' record in his first season at Western Michigan in 2013.
''They're humble enough to know that anybody at any moment can beat them if they don't play their best,'' he said.
Some things to watch for what is supposed to be a warm, muggy and possibly rainy Saturday in Champaign:
With Illinois' most talented receiver, Mike Dudek, out for most if not all of the season with a second torn anterior cruciate ligament, Wes Lunt's receiving targets have been limited so far. That was particularly true against a strong North Carolina secondary. Only seven of Lunt's 17 completions were by wide receivers. Malik Turner had the best night with three catches for 33 yards and a touchdown. But Western Michigan starts a young secondary that could make the Illini receivers look a little better.
Broncos receiver Corey Davis is 17th in the country with 110 receiving yards per game and he has three touchdowns so far. But Fleck said that after Davis' 1,408-yard, 15-touchdown season in 2015, he expects every team, Illinois included, to focus on taking away Davis.
''The days of being able to have a 15- and 16-catch performance because he's in single coverage, those days are over,'' Fleck said.
Illinois tailback Ke'Shawn Vaughn started the season quietly with a 49-yard day against Murray State, but after a strong game against the Tar Heels he's looking more like the mix of power and speed the Illinois coaching staff says it wants in its primary back. Vaughn carried the ball 15 times for 116 yards and a touchdown against the Tar Heels. He has 165 yards on 32 carries – and average of 5.2 yards a carry – on the season.
Western Michigan is one of just seven Bowl Subdivision teams that has not turned the ball over this season. That trend will run directly into an Illinois defense intent on creating turnovers, one of Smith's longtime priorities. The Illini have forced four turnovers this season, less than Smith and the Illini staff would like, but they have turned three of those into touchdowns.
WHY NOT FLECK?
Fleck noted this week that, setting a since-broken state record for high school receivers in Maple Park, Illinois, he was an Illini fan and hoped to be recruited by Illinois and then-coach Ron Turner in spite of his 5-8, 155-pound frame and 4-9 40-yard dash speed. Years later, he worked on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers staff with Turner.
''Every day I would ask, `Why didn't you recruit me? Why didn't you recruit me?''' Fleck said, laughing. ''He's like, `Look at you – why would I recruit you?' And he was right.''
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