Illinois sees no room to relax with Western Illinois
Sep. 11, 2015
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — With a victory in its opener, it would be surprising if the Illinois locker room didn't feel a little more normal after the firing of its coach and an unusual weather delay.
Interim coach Bill Cubit said the situation is only a little bit easier.
Illinois opened its season with a 52-3 win over Kent State seven days after seeing Tim Beckman was fired. That came one day after the game was postponed by lightning.
"As soon as you relax something's going to come up, so you never do relax," Cubit said as his team prepared for Western Illinois on Saturday.
Western Illinois coach Bob Nielson, coming off his Football Championship Subdivision team's own big win, 35-3 over Eastern Illinois, believes his Leathernecks are about to face a severe test.
"We're certainly going to have to play a lot better than we did," he said.
Some things to watch when Illinois (1-0) hosts Western Illinois (1-0):
The turnover battle could be big. Western Illinois forced five last week, a big reason Nielson said he came away impressed by his defense, which he said "really kind of set the tone for the game." Illinois forced four turnovers against Kent State, a big reason the Illini were able to start fast. All four came in the first half and each resulted in an Illini touchdown. Illinois led 28-0 by the end of the first quarter and 38-0 at halftime.
Special teams have been more problem than asset for Illinois for years, going back to Ron Zook's time as coach. But punting, kicking and the return game were all part of the win over Kent State. Ryan Frain averaged a solid 39.4 yards a kick over seven punts and Taylor Zalewski hit his only field goal, a 43-yarder. He was also 7-7 on extra points and averaged 56.4 yards on his eight kickoffs. The highlight was V'Angelo Bentley, the starting cornerback who moonlights as return man. He had punt returns of 36 and 48 yards in the first half to set up Illinois touchdowns.
"I look at it as a way for me to excite the team, make a play," Bentley said. "I just try to stress to the other 10 guys on the field with me, 'This is a play where we could possibly score.'"
LUNT TO WHO?
One big question facing Illinois before the season was who quarterback Wes Lunt would throw to with top receiver Mike Dudek and Justin Hardee both out with injuries. The question should have been who wouldn't Lunt connect with. The redshirt junior hit eight different receivers while going 11-19 for 162 yards and four touchdowns. In all, Illini quarterbacks threw to 10 different receivers.
Illinois' biggest concern against Western Illinois might be the two guys in the middle of the Leatherneck defensive line. Gavin Ricketts and Virginia Tech transfer Kris Harley both weigh 290 pounds, and were a big part of the reason Eastern Illinois only moved the ball inside the Leatherneck 20-yard line twice.
"Their front four is really active," Cubit said.
Cubit has made clear he would like to be the Illinois coach on a permanent basis, and athletic director Mike Thomas has said he'll be the coach through the season. That makes 2015 one long job interview for Cubit, and a change from life as an offensive coordinator, when he wasn't the face of the team.
"It's just no sleep, you know, because your mind just races so much," he said.
Illinois has never lost to an FCS school, and a win over Western Illinois would give Cubit and the Illini momentum as they head on the road next week to North Carolina.