Illini look to bounce back from UNC blowout loss in nonconference finale vs. Middle Tennessee State

Illini Inquirer breaks down the important numbers, players to watch, keys to the game and picks to click; plus a score prediction

Middle Tennessee State (2-1) 

at Illinois (2-1)

Time: 3 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 26

TV: ESPNews - Mike Corey (play-by-play) and Rene Ingoglia (color analyst)

Last week: Illinois lost to North Carolina 48-14; Middle Tennessee State defeated Charlotte 73-14

All-time series:  Illinois leads 2-0 with wins in 1998 (48-20) and 2000 (35-6), both at Memorial Stadium. 

Vegas betting line: Illinois (-6)

Illini depth chart

Injury Report: Illini light at tight end with White, Clary out

Know Your Enemy: Five questions with Aldo Amato, MTSU beat writer for Daily News Journal

Video: Illini co-DC Tim Banks on UNC performance: "Bad"

Video: QB Wes Lunt talks WR drops and UNC loss

Press clippings: UNC loss 'not the end of the world', Cubit says

List of recruiting visitors

Micheal Young: Illini must correct fix UNC mishaps vs. MTSU

Upon Further Review: UNC film showed many defensive, WR issues

Mailbag: Werner answers questions on WRs, run game, defense, Cubit and Beckman

Dropping the ball: Costly WR drops bog down Illini offense

SCOUT NOW: Three Illini who must step up

Big Ten Power Rankings: Illini fall to double digits

Number-crunching

  • 0: Sacks allowed by Illinois starting offensive line so far this season
  • 0-5: MTSU all-time record vs. Big Ten opponents; but the Blue Raiders have lost their last three games against Big Ten opponents by a combined 21 points
  • 1: Sacks by the Illini defense so far, tied for worst in the country
  • 2: Catches by sophomore receiver Malik Turner through three games
  • 21: Drops by Illinois receivers so far this season, according to interim head coach Bill Cubit
  • 28.2: Net punt yards allowed by Illini, worst in the Big Ten; Ryan Frain averages 40.3 yards per pun
  • 31: Kickoff return yards needed by V'Angelo Bentley to pass Pierre Thomas as the Illini career leader in kickoff return yardage
  • 51.0: Points per game by MTSU, seventh-best in the country
  • 69: Rushing yards for Josh Ferguson, currently 13th on the Illini career rushing yards list, to pass both John Karras and Keith Jones

MTSU players to watch

1. Brent Stockstill, QB: The redshirt freshman quarterback, the son of MTSU head coach Rick Stockstill, doesn't play like a first-year player in the pocket (though he did greyshirt before his redshirt season). He ranks 13th in the country in pass efficiency. He makes smart decisions and doesn't turn the ball over that often (two interceptions in 99 pass attempts). He doesn't have the strongest arm but he can pick teams apart in the MTSU spread offense. He took the job this spring from last year's starter, Austin Grammar, a run-first quarterback.

2. Ed'Marques Batties, WR: While 5-foot-9 redshirt freshman Ritchie James leads MTSU in receptions (22 catches, 211 yards, 0 TDs), Batties - a 6-foot Texas native with speed to burn - has been Stockstill's more dangerous (17 catches, 271 yards, five TDs) option.

3. Terry Pettis, TE: The 6-foot-5, 229-pound tight end moved from wide receiver this spring and has been MTSU's big-play threat so far (eight catches, 238 yards, two touchdowns). 

4. Kevin Byard, S: The 5-foot-11, 217-pound junior was a first-team All-Conference USA selection last season and has 13 tackles, 1.0 TFL and one interception so far this season. He is two interceptions away from the school record and is an NFL prospect.

5. Jeremy Cutrer, CB: The 6-foot-2 JUCO transfer has proved to be an immediate impact defensive playmaker. Already, he has three interceptions (returned one for 77 yards) and eight passes broken up.

Keys to the game

1. Pick up blitzes: MTSU blitzes heavily. That will test the communication of the Illini offensive line, which has been great in pass protection this season but didn't face must blitzing against UNC. Also, Illini quarterback Wes Lunt must effectively notice these blitzes, change the play or stick with the play based on those blitzes, and effectively communicate those with his wide receivers. Blitzes can cause confusion and pressure for the offense, but it also presents many one-one-one opportunities. The Illini offense must take advantage of those opportunities.

2. Keep MTSU receivers in front: MTSU runs a pretty typical spread offense that uses a lot of wide receiver screens and short and intermediate routes. The Illini should play everything from deep to short, and then they have to wrap up and tackle and get MTSU's plus athletes to the ground to eliminate yards after catch -- which the spread thrives on.

3. Set the tempo: UNC tries to run a quick tempo and it wore out the Illini defense (along with sweltering heat). But the Blue Raiders run an even faster tempo. One observer called it "Oregon fast." Once they complete a pass, the MTSU offense runs right to the line of scrimmage to run another play. The Illini defense needs to force a few incompletions, stuff a few runs or sack Stockstill a few times to slow them down. Also, the offense could use a few long, controlled drives to give the thin defensive line a much-needed breather.

4. Win special teams: Illinois got crushed in this regard against North Carolina, allowing two huge punt returns to All-America candidate Ryan Switzer and missing two field goals (though kicker Taylor Zalewski deserves a pass for the 57-yard attempt). The Illini need to flip the script against MTSU. The special teams was a positive the first two weeks with a few long V'Angelo Bentley returns, Zalewski perfect as a kicker, a blocked punt and a blocked field goal. Whoever makes the game-changing special teams play could win the game.

Picks to click

Offense

Wes Lunt, QB: For Illinois to win games against good offenses, Lunt will have to be on his A-game, because the Illini defense likely will give up points. That said, Lunt must take what the defense gives him. Lunt has been pretty good at not forcing many throws this season. If it weren't for so many drops, his accuracy would be higher than 70 percent. But it appears his frustration level is growing with the receivers because of that. If he locks in on one receiver (Geronimo Allison) or tries to force throws, MTSU has the playmakers in the secondary to make him pay. Lunt may be understandably frustrated, but he must put trust in his reads and trust that his skill players will make the plays (even if they haven't earned that trust yet).

Defense

Eric Finney/James Crawford, STAR: MTSU's spread makes teams make tackles in space, where the Illini have struggled in recent years against quality offenses. Thing is, Illini co-DC Tim Banks' defensive scheme (4-2-5) is built to defend spread offenses. It employs the hybrid linebacker/safety (Illinois calls it a STAR) who is supposed to be versatile enough to defend the run in the box and cover receivers one-on-one. MTSU will run mostly quick routes, like bubble screens and slants, so Finney and Crawford must make plays in space or force the receivers back in to the box where teammates can complete the tackle.

Prediction

Even before the season, Middle Tennessee State looked like a tough game. A tough "mid-major" team following the Illini's toughest nonconference game (North Carolina). Sounds like a trap game. But for Illinois, the Blue Raiders shouldn't sneak up on them. The Illini need this game just as much -- if not more -- than MTSU. Win, and the Illini are about on pace for what most had projected, a 3-1 nonconference record; the Illini would be halfway to a bowl bid and have a tad of momentum heading into a few chances for the big upset they need (vs. Nebraska and at Iowa). Lose against MTSU, and Illinois (led by an interim coach, who after a 2-2 start would have a miniscule chance at the permanent job), limps into Big Ten play on the verge of that all-too-familiar feeling of a lost season by mid-October. The stadium likely will feel tight following the loss at North Carolina, but Illinois must forget the UNC game. The Illini had the leaders last season to re-focus following the Purdue loss and finish the season with three wins in five games to earn bowl eligibility. Most of those leaders are still on the team, so they should be able to handle the adversity. Illinois still is more talented than Middle Tennessee State. If the Illini execute, they should improve to 3-0 at home this season.

Illinois 35, Middle Tennessee State 27


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