Preview: Western Kentucky at Illinois

James Boyd, Associated Press

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — Illinois will face high-scoring Western Kentucky at home in its first prime-time matchup of the season.

The Illini and Hilltoppers are both coming off of season-opening victories. Illinois edged Ball State, 24-21, while WKU downed in-state rival Eastern Kentucky, 31-17.

Coach Lovie Smith played 12 true freshmen and started three on defense for the Illini for the first time since 1980. He acknowledged that the situation was unusual, but that he would rely on his newcomers again heading into Saturday’s game.

“We knew a lot of freshmen would have the chance to get early time,” Smith said. “It may be even more this week.”

Even though it was just their first game, Smith still expects to see growth from his young players and their next challenge will be much tougher than their first.

Last season, led by quarterback Mike White, the Hilltoppers went 11-3 and capped their run with a 51-31 victory over Memphis in the Boca Raton Bowl. This year, WKU has picked up right where it left off.

Against EKU, White threw for 264 yards and a touchdown. On the ground, running backs Marquez Trigg and D’Andre Ferby combined for 118 yards and three touchdowns.

Illinois gave up 375 yards of total offense to Ball State, including 171 yards on the ground, but the team did force two turnovers. Defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson knows his players have to be more disciplined against WKU, but wants them to continue getting their hands on the ball.

“That’s what we preach,” Nickerson said. “That’s our mentality. We want to take the football away and we want to score with it.”

MIKE AND MIKE

On his first play of the season, wide receiver Mike Dudek was leveled by a Ball State defender on a punt return. But the next time he touched the ball, it was on a 16-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Chayce Crouch. Running back Mike Epstein also got in the end zone against the Cardinals, scoring twice in his first college game. Both players recorded over 100 all-purpose yards and their versatility could present problems for a WKU defense that gave up 345 yards of total offense last week.

MAKING HISTORY

WKU has recorded six straight winning seasons. A win against Illinois Saturday night would be the program’s first over a Big Ten opponent in seven matchups. It would also be just WKU’s sixth victory in its last 20 true road openers.

NEW COACHES

Mike Sanford and Clayton White are both in their first seasons at WKU. Sanford was named the 20th head coach in school history, while White has taken over as the defensive coordinator. Last week, White helped the Hilltopper defense hold the Colonels to 17 points, but he knows Illinois’ size and speed can present different challenges.

VETERAN PLAYMAKER

Illini linebacker Tre Watson started his junior season with two takeaways against Ball State – a fumble recovery and his first career interception. He also totaled 12 tackles against the Cardinals, but wasn’t satisfied with how his team performed on third downs. Ball State converted 12 of their 21 third down attempts and even kept a few drives alive on third and long. Watson expects his squad to show more closure against WKU, which converted 10 of 17 third downs in its opener.

LOOKING AHEAD

Illinois closes out its nonconference schedule next week at No. 21 South Florida in its second consecutive prime-time game. USF is currently 2-0 and has outscored opponents 75-39. The Bulls high-powered offense could present a lot of problems for an inexperienced Illini defense.

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