Preview: Youngstown State

A look at the Illini's opponent for their season opener this weekend at Memorial Stadium, Youngstown State.

Illinois kicks off the 2014 football season this Saturday at Memorial Stadium with a tilt against the Penguins of Youngstown State. Here are a few areas of note and things to track for the game:

Familiar Faces

Does the name Eric Wolford sound familiar to Illinois fans? The Illinois offensive line coach under Ron Zook in 2007 and 2008 is making his first return trip to Memorial Stadium to take on his former program.

But Wolford isn't the only familiar coaching face that will likely be around Memorial Stadium this weekend. Former Ohio State head coach and now Youngstown State President Jim Tressel will be on hand. Beckman coached under Tressel at Ohio State, and Tressel is more than familiar with the orange and blue from his time at OSU.

New Faces

All eyes will be on newly-named starter Wes Lunt at quarterback for Illinois. The transfer from Oklahoma State was the favorite to win the job at Illinois, and didn't disappoint in camp, holding off fellow contenders Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey.

Last year, Youngstown State's passing defense ranked 101st in the nation among FCS schools, giving up an average of 247 yards per game, at a rate of over 12 yards per completion and 26 touchdowns. If Lunt and his receivers can get it going early, he shouldn't face too much difficulty in putting up some numbers on what wasn't a stellar pass defense last year for the Pens.

Speaking of new faces, and of the receivers, Lunt will likely be looking to take advantage of targets like big-bodied Geronimo Allison and the lightning-quick Mike Dudek. The good news for Lunt is that the Illini face a defense that managed less than two sacks per game last season, so behind a veteran offensive line, Lunt should have plenty of time and options to throw to in this one.

Balance

It's no surprise really that Youngstown State was successful running the football last year to the tune of 195.6 yards per game. Wolford, a former offensive line coach and run game coordinator, is no stranger to pounding the rock. YSU's running attack ranked 32nd among FCS schools last year.

On the other hand, the YSU passing offense averaged 204.8 yards per game last year, which was good for 66th in the nation. The passing game isn't YSU's forte by any means, but having the ability to do both at least has to keep the defense of the Illini, who struggled mightily last year, honest to a degree.

The good news for the Illini is that they appear to have a much-improved defensive front seven this year, which will aid in slowing down the YSU rushing attack. If some of the secondary who played early in their careers can make some plays, it will help to contain the leaks.

Dark Horse

Sure, plenty of attention will be paid to QB Wes Lunt for Illinois, but two guys who could be set to have a big day are junior running back Josh Ferguson and senior back Donovonn Young. With the potent pass threat that Lunt poses, the defense won't be able to load up the box, meaning Ferguson and Young will likely get their share of carries against the YSU defense who allowed nearly 163 yards rushing per game last year at 4.33 yards per rush.

What makes Ferguson so dangerous is his ability to be a threat in both the run and pass game. As creative as Bill Cubit gets with his offensive sets, Ferguson will be one player the YSU defense will always need to keep track of.

Person of Interest

Youngstown State's Martin Ruiz, who rushed for nearly 1100 yards last season, is back yet again for the Penguins. Ruiz, who attended the same high school as Illinois LEO Dejazz Woods, will be the primary threat for YSU in the run game and will test the Illinois front seven early.

At quarterback, Dante Nania takes over for longtime starter Kurt Hess, who graduated. It may take some time for Nania to get settled in, so expect Ruiz to get his share of carries before Nania likely gets turned loose.

Game Details

Kickoff: 11:00 AM CST
Location: Memorial Stadium (Champaign, IL)
Television: Big Ten Network

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