Before each Illinois football game, Illini Inquirer will ask five questions of an opposing beat writer. This week, we talked with Western Illinois beat writer Scott Holland of The McDonough County Voice (Macomb, Ill.) to preview the Illini's Week 2 home game against the Western Illinois Leathernecks.
1. Western Illinois started the season with a big 33-5 rout of Eastern Illinois. How big of a surprise was that and what did you most learn about the Leathernecks as they started their third season under head coach Bob Nielson?
The win did not surprise me, but the size for the victory was definitely a surprise. While WIU won handily, Eastern definitely shot itself in the foot with five turnovers and several critical penalties. I think the thing that I learned the most is that the young linebackers and secondary look like they will be just fine. Those two position groups were the big concerns for Western heading into the season.
2. Junior receiver Lance Lenoir Jr. was named FCS Special Teams Player of the Week. What kind of offense does WIU run and who are the playmakers to watch?
Western runs out of the shotgun 95 percent of the time with three receivers and a running back. WIU will either use a tight end at the H-back position or a fourth receiver. QB Trenton Norvell is a junior who has started every game since transferring to WIU from Cincinnati. Lenoir is his favorite target, as well as Joey Borselino. WIU is inexperienced at RB until Nikko Watson returns to the team for Week 3. Devon Moore was the starter at RB last week but true freshman Steve McShane led the team in rushing yards. The No. 3 and 4 receiver spots are split among Jaelon Acklin, J'Vaughn Williams, Zeke Lesure and Adam Hoogerwerf.
3. Illinois put up 52 points against Kent State, partly due to short fields. But the Illini offense has some major weapons. What is WIU's defensive identity and what will they have to do to slow down Wes Lunt and company?
WIU plays a 4-3 Cover-2 defense. The last few seasons the Leathernecks haven't blitzed much, but did blitz more than normal last week. WIU hangs its hat on stopping the run and not giving up the big play. Those will be big keys come Saturday with the Illini hitting so many vs. Kent State. WIU's best option of slowing Illinois' offense may be controlling the clock on offense. The Leathernecks did not run the ball very well last week vs. EIU, so they will have to improve dramatically this week. The Leathernecks will also have force turnovers and make Illinois play with a long field.
4. The Missouri Valley Football Conference is loaded. Where does Western Illinois fit into that picture, and do you think Illinois State will be as dangerous as last season?
When it comes to the MVFC, North Dakota State is the favorite until somebody beats them. I think Illinois State will be right up there with NDSU as the two favorites in the league. Even though there are question marks at running back for South Dakota State and QB for Northern Iowa, I think those two are right there. After those four, I think WIU, Youngstown State and Indiana State will be slugging it out for fifth and possibly a playoff spot. If WIU can go 6-5 with the schedule it faces (eight opponents were ranked in preseason FCS polls, plus a game at Illinois), the Leathernecks could make the FCS postseason.
5. What's your prediction for Saturday's game?
I think WIU can keep it close for a half, then Illinois' depth and athleticism take over. I like the Illini by two scores, 31-17.