Before each Illinois football game, Illini Inquirer will ask five questions of an opposing beat writer. This week, we talked with Kent State beat writer Allen Moff of the Record-Courier (Kent, Ohio) to preview Friday's 8:12 p.m. Illini season opener against the Golden Flashes
1. What challenges did Paul Haynes inherit at Kent State and how have expectations changed entering his third season as head coach?
Moff: Paul Haynes was put in a tough spot when he took over. The team was coming off a record-setting 11 wins season that shocked everyone, and had some key players coming back. But Dri Archer suffered an injury in the opener, and the Flashes wound up winning just four games. Expectations are low once again this year outside of the program - Kent State has broken .500 only three times since 1977 - but Haynes has 20 starters back and believes this year's team will be much-improved overall.
2. Phil Steele ranks the Golden Flashes' offense near the bottom of the MAC. What style of offense does Kent State bring and who are some guys who must step up to give Illinois a scare?
Moff: The Flashes are implementing an up-tempo offense under first-year coordinator Don Treadwell, who ran Mark Dantonio's offenses at Cincinnati and Michigan State. They feature a third-year starting quarterback in Colin Reardon, who has made some plays but struggled with consistency overall (26 career TD passes, 25 Ints). They have a 250-pound running back in Trayion Durham who missed all of last season with a foot injury, but has rushed for nearly 2,800 yards during his Kent State career. The key to hanging with Illinois, along with Reardon's play, is the offensive line. All five starters have experience, but the unit has struggled for the past two years and still has a lot to prove.
3. The strength of this team appears to be the defense. What is their defensive identity and who are some guys to watch on that side of the ball?
Moff: Kent State has its top 11 tacklers back, led by First Team All-MAC free safety Nate Holley — who averaged 12.5 tackles per game last year (3rd in the nation). Seniors Nate Terhune (end), Jordan Italiano (strong safety) and Matt Dellinger (middle linebacker) are proven veterans. The defense is really still searching for an identity under Haynes. The unit was solid at times last year, but struggled to stop the run and failed to produce many game-changing plays (9 sacks, 17 forced turnovers).
4. Northern Illinois has been top dog in the MAC the past five years (winning three and playing in all five MAC title games), but there are several teams on the rise -- led by some intriguing coaching names for Illinois. Do you see Matt Campbell's Toledo Rockets, P.J. Fleck's Western Michigan Broncos or Dino Baber's Bowling Green Falcons knocking off the Huskies this season?
Moff: Toledo appears loaded and I wouldn't be surprised to see the Rockets win the conference. But Northern Illinois is still the team to beat in my mind, with 15 starters back and Drew Hare starting his second season at quarterback.