With its longest road trip of the season already in the rearview mirror, Western Illinois tangles with an instate foe--but a big one at that, the University of Illinois.
"When you look at the last few years, we’ve had an outstanding nonconference schedule. We love it. It’s a great challenge for us," said first-year WIU head coach Jared Elliott, who previously served as the team's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.
This season's schedule is markedly different than last year's slate in that the Leathernecks are not only home more this fall but also have shorter road trips.
"That's for sure," Elliott said, "but you've got to be ready no matter where the game is played."
Like many of his teammates, junior running back Steve McShane noted that WIU often plays its best on the road.
"Since I’ve been here it seems like we play better away. I don’t know if it’s pressure or being in front of our families or what, but it’s been like that," said McShane, who scored all three Western touchdowns in last week's opening season game at Montana State.
If WIU is to have any success offensively, the Leathernecks need their young offensive line to mature quickly. Prior to last Thursday's season opener, Western's offensive line (excluding tight end) had played in just 23 games combined. Take away senior Drew Wagner and the number drops to four with zero starts.
Yet, Elliott is encouraged--particularly with redshirt sophomore Kyle Sanft (Bartlett) and redshirt freshman Michael Ross (Montini Catholic).
"Kyle Sanft, our young center, has done an outstanding job all camp. He’s a guy that has consistently gotten better. He’s replacing an All-American in Jacob Judd, a guy who was a three-year starter," Elliott said. "We put a lot on our center, a lot of communication, a lot of calls and IDs (of the defense). He has to be a real quick thinker. He’s the heartbeat of our front and there’s no question that we needed to see him mature and develop quickly, and he’s done that for us."
As for Ross, Elliott said, "He’s a guy that has really made a lot of improvement. He’s one of the guys who with more reps has gotten more comfortable."
Three key matchups
- WIU offensive line vs. Illinois defensive front: Before last week's season opener, the Leathernecks' O-line had just nine starts (all coming from senior Drew Wagner) amongst its five first-teamers. WIU will start two redshirt freshmen and a redshirt sophomore against Lovie Smith's front four.
- WIU passing game vs. Illinois secondary: Western had virtually no deep passing game against Montana State. Running backs accounted for 3/4 of the catches and no wide out had a gain of more than eight yards. The Leathernecks need to get the ball downfield to keep the Illini from loading up the box against the run.
- WIU defense vs. Illinois QB A.J. Bush: Illinois rallied past Kent State in last week's opener. Bush gained 156 yards rushing (net was 139 due to three sacks). Though he also threw for 190 yards, Western's best bet for success is keeping him in the pocket.
WIU (0-1) vs. Illinois (1-0) at Memorial Stadium Saturday in Champaign. The Big Ten Network carries the game, which kicks off at 6:30 p.m.