PREVIEW: Illinois kicks off 2016 season vs. Murray State

In first game of Lovie Smith era, Illinois aims to improve to 16-0 all-time against FCS opponents

Murray State (0-0) at Illinois (0-0)

Time: 2:42 p.m. CT

TV: BTN - Eric Collins (play by play), J Leman (analyst) and Rick Pizzo (sidelines)

Series: The two teams have never played

Vegas betting line: N/A

Know Your Enemy: Murray State beat writer Jeff Arenz previews the Racers at the Illini

Illini football ticket sales 'trending up'

Illini football releases first official depth chart

Fact or Fiction: Illini will make a bowl game

Illini name four seniors as team captains for 2016

WATCH: Meet Illini sophomore starter Julian Hylton

WATCH: Meet Illini sophomore starter Tre Watson

WATCH: Illini players preview season-opener vs. Murray State

Lovie: Game week 'been a long time coming'

Werner: Applying Wins Above Replacement to Illini football


0: Previous meetings between Illinois and Murray State on the football field

9: 2015 bowl teams on the Illini 2016 schedule, tied for fifth most in the nation

15-0: Illini all-time record vs. FCS opponents

18: Consecutive home-opening wins for Illinois football, the fourth longest active streak in the country

22-2: Illini record in August/September home games since 2007, third best record in Big Ten behind Wisconsin and Ohio State

47: Newcomers on the Murray State roster

127: Years of Illinois football

347.3: Passing yards per game by Murray State offense last season, second-most in FCS

3,778: Passing yards tossed last season by Murray State quarterback KD Humphries, which led the FCS

45,000: Expected attendance for Saturday's game, most for an Illinois home opener since 2011

Five Racers to watch

1. KD Humphries, QB: The redshirt senior led the FCS with 3,778 passing yards last season and tossed 22 touchdowns to seven interceptions. The 6-foot-3, 225-pound quarterback was named a STATS Preseason Third-Team All-American and a first-team Preseason All-America selection by HERO Sports.

2. Mark Dodson II, RB: The 5-foot-10, 198-pound redshirt junior transferred from Ole MIss where he played 24 games and ran for 249 yards and five touchdowns in 2014. The Memphis, Tenn., native was the 2012 Tennessee Gatorade Player of the Year. Dodson II is a former four-star recruit and's No. 38 ranked running back in the Class of 2013.

3. Jesse Blackburn, WR/TE: Murray State lost most of its top three receivers past season, and Blackburn returns as their top receiver (48 catches, 612 yards, 5 TDs). The 6-foot-3, 240-pound receiver was a preseason All-OVC First Team selection is kind of a hybrid tight end/receiver who can cause some mismatches with his size and physicality.

4. Jonathan Jackson, LB: The senior earned Preseason All-OVC Second Team honors and has accumulated 211 tackles the past two seasons including an OVC-leading 134 tackles as a sophomore.

5. Zach Wade, DB: The 5-foot-11, 215-pound junior plays a hybrid safety/linebacker position for Murray State. The junior college transfer had 129 tackles last season for Saddleback CC, which made the CCCAA title game last season. He will be moved all around the field and try to make some big plays. 

Scouting the Racers

Offense: Second-year head coach Mitch Stewart was promoted from offensive coordinator to be one of the youngest head coaches in Division I college football. He runs a pass-happy, up-tempo offense for the Racers. Almost 60 percent of their plays last season were passes, so they will try to spread out the Illini horizontally with quick precision, timing routes and try to make plays in space. KD Humphries is a dangerous pocket passer who could play for many FBS teams, but he lost most of his top playmakers from a year ago.

Defense: The Racers run a 4-2-5 defense, similar to the Illini's previous defense, which utilizes a STAR-like hybrid linebacker/safety (Wade). The Illini have a power advantage up front, so expect Murray State to stunt their defensive linemen, disguise blitzes and generally try to cause some confusion to make up for their physical disadvantages. But Murray State allowed 197.6 rushing yards per game last season, so the Illini should have plenty of running room.

Keys to the game

1. Run roughshod on offenseWe know Wes Lunt is good. The Illini staff knows Lunt is good. The Big Ten knows Lunt is good. This preseason-like game is the chance for Illinois to figure out just how good its rushing attack is. The Illini, who finished last in the Big Ten in rushing last season, have to run the football for Lunt and the passing game to truly be efficient and dangerous. It'd be great to see offensive coordinator Garrick McGee commit to 40-plus rushes to test his offensive line's effectiveness and toughness prior to a much bigger Week 2 test against one of the ACC's best. Anything below 200 rushing yards (and five yards per carry) would be pretty disappointing. 

2. Play takeaway: The most important stat for Illinois head coach Lovie Smith is turnover margin. He cares less about yards allowed and more about takeaways (and, of course, points allowed). His Chicago Bears defenses thrived on taking the ball away and scoring on their own. Illinois is stronger, faster and should be more physical than Murray State. The Racers will try to tempo the Illini and throw the ball all over the field. It'd be a great sign to see Illinois manhandle the Racers offensive players, wrap up in space, strip away three takeaways (fumbles or interceptions) and prove they've quickly picked up on their head coach's key philosophy.

3. Get out injury free: Illinois should roll in this one but have a huge one next week against North Carolina. The Illini depth chart is thin, so getting through a Week 1 warm-up injury-free is key to any chance to pulling off an upset of the top-25 Tar Heels.

Illini in the spotlight


Gabe Megginson, OG: The Illini want to be more physical. Redshirt sophomore  Nick Allegretti certainly looks ready to boost efforts there, but former four-star Gabe Megginson also is key to making the Illini look more like a Big Ten front five. Megginson is physically gifted but has struggled (like most young linemen) with mental parts of the game, much like Allegretti did last year. It'd be nice to see Megginson mow over some FCS defensive lineman and make as few mechanical mistakes as possible before his first big test against North Carolina.


Julian Hylton, SS: While many will be looking to see how dominant this defensive line can be against an FCS opponents or to see Hardy Nickerson in the orange and blue, surprise  starter Julian Hylton will earn his first real reps as an Illini defender as he draws the start at strong safety. Hylton has great athleticism and is a strong hitter but was mostly a special teams contributor last year. Illinois needs some reliability next to free safety Taylor Barton. Saturday is Hylton's first chance in a game to prove he can be that guy.


This game counts. It counts toward the record and counts toward bowl eligibility. But for all intensive purposes, this is a preseason game. This is a paid-for win for the Illini (Murray State receives a $475,000 payout for the appearance). Saturday basically should be the celebration of the offseason, a celebration of what Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman has created. A credible coach will lead Illinois football into a new era, one that seems to finally have some stability. The program finally seems to have long-term potential to be better than the status quo: inconsistent and underachieving. We shouldn't learn much about Illinois on Saturday. The Illini will want to keep this game as vanilla as possible so as not to show anything to Week 2 opponent North Carolina (which likely will have to unveil most of the play book against No. 18 Georgia this weekend). But 20 percent of the playbook should be enough to easily dispatch an FCS opponent that went 3-8 last season. The Racers will throw it around a lot and try to win battles in space. But the Big Ten team is bigger, stronger, faster and deeper and should impose its will. The Lovie Era will start with an easy, breezy win before its first real, huge test next weekend.

Illinois 38, Murray State 14

Illini Inquirer Top Stories