USA Today // Mike Granse

Illini football improves to 2-0 with a 44-0 rout of Western Illinois

Illini football improves to 2-0 with a 44-0 rout of Western Illinois

Illinois 44, Western Illinois 0

What happened

For the second straight week, Illinois (2-0) dominated an inferior opponent on both sides of the ball. The defense completed its first shut out since 2012 (Charleston Southern), hasn't allowed a touchdown yet this season and limited the Leathernecks to 141 total yards and five first downs. Quarterback Wes Lunt (33-for-46, 316 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) diced the Leathernecks cover-two zone defense, throwing often to senior receiver Geronimo Allison (8 catches, 124 yards). The special teams was great too. Kicker Taylor Zalewski made all three field goal attempts, and Jaylen Dunlap blocked a punt which Marchie Murdock returned for a touchdown. The Illini took a 30-0 halftime lead (they've outscored their opponents 68-0 in the first half through two games), but had three turnovers in the second half.

What it means

Illinois paid Kent State  ($600,000) and Western Illinois ($450,000) more than $1 million combined to visit Memorial Stadium this season. With two wins in hand -- one-third of the way to bowl eligibility -- the money was well spent for a rebuilding Illini program. The Illini defense got a different offensive look (WIU plays a shotgun, pass-heavy style) and the backups received many more second-half reps. The Illini are building much-needed confidence. But to really convert skeptics into believers, the Illini will have to beat some quality opponents. They'll get their first real test next week at North Carolina.

What went right

The Illini are putting up a bunch of points, but the defense remains the story of the season through two games. Tim Banks has taken heat for terrible defenses the last two years, but the co-defensive coordinator finally has enough talent and experience to really succeed. His defense limited possible FCS All-American Lance Lenoir to two catches for zero yards. New defensive line coach/co-defensive coordinator Mike Phair also is having a nice impact on the defensive line, which allowed just 98 rushing yards. Lunt made a couple dangerous throws, but he really seems to have  a mastery and control of the offense now. He made great reads and took what the WIU gave him most of the day, leading six scoring drives of 10-plus plays. Special teams coordinator Alex Golesh appears to have built up some confidence in Zalewski, who remains perfect on the season.

What went wrong

The Illini cut down on penalties and the receivers had fewer drops and missed assignments, but the inside run game remains a concern. The Illini averaged 3.7 yards per game last week against Kent State. And while Western Illinois's strength is its defensive line, the Illini again managed 3.7 yards per carry. Also, great returner V'Angelo Bentley tried to do way too much on Saturday. He muffed a punt return in the first half but was lucky that the ball didn't touch his arms, so the ball was simply downed. He then fumbled on a return early in the third quarter, trying to gain a few extra yards against blanket coverage. Bentley's fumble was the start of a sloppy second half for the Illini. Tight end Tyler White and running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn also fumbled.

Star of the game

Taylor Barton. For a second straight week, Barton takes the honor -- though for the second straight week, Lunt was really close. Barton twice took advantage of WIU quarterback Trenton Norvell locking on a receiver, picking off two passes. The junior safety has three interceptions through two games. The last Illini to intercept three passes in a season was Terry Hawthorne in 2011. No Illini has had more than three interceptions in an entire seasons since safety Kevin Mitchell picked off five passes in 2007.

What's next

The Illini face their toughest nonconference test as they head to play North Carolina. The Illini haven't won a nonconference road game since winning at Syracuse in 2007. Since then, the Illinni have losses to Western Michigan, Cincinnati, Fresno State, Arizona State and Washington. The Tar Heels, who lost to South Carolina in their opener and host North Carolina A&T today, were picked to finish fifth in the ACC's seven-team Coastal Division, so UNC is not a goliath. But they are much more talented and deep than the Illini's first two opponents.


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