Illini WR Justin Hardee: Underdog label against WMU is 'very disrespectful'

MAC favorite Western Michigan favored in Vegas to beat Big Ten foe Illinois on Saturday at Memorial Stadium in Champaign

CHAMPAIGN - Last week, Illinois was hoping for its "arrival" moment. Now, a week after losing 48-23 to North Carolina, Lovie Smith's team is just hoping to avoid a big black eye.

The opening line in Vegas listed the Illini as a one-point favorite over Western Michigan, but that line quickly shifted to make the Broncos (2-0) a three-point favorite at Memorial Stadium.

Yes, for the first time in program history, Illinois is an underdog to a Mid-American Conference team -- at home.

"Very disrespectful," Illinois senior wide receiver Justin Hardee said. "It's about time that we come to play. There's no need to talk about it. We know what we got to do. We know how we feel. We're going to keep our feelings inside. We're just going to go out and play."

According to Phil Steele's 2016 College Football Preview, during the previous five seasons, only two other MAC teams were favored against Big Ten teams -- both against Purdue.

  • Bowling Green was a 3-point favorite at Purdue in 2015. The Falcons won 35-28.
  • Northern Illinois was a four-point favorite at Purdue in 2013. The Huskies won 55-24.

Will Smith use the Vegas line as bulletin board material for his team?

"We don't need a lot of motivation," Smith said. "We lost this past week. That's motivation enough for us. We need to play a better game. I don't see the University of Illinois being underdogs to many people here at home, though."

Since 2010, MAC teams are a combined 14-66 against the Big Ten. The MAC has won two or more games against the Big Ten in eight of the last nine seasons. Western Michigan is 5-35 all time against the Big Ten. But after beating Northwestern 22-21 at Evanston in the season opener, the Broncos -- who are 2-0 for the first time since 1994 -- are looking to win two games over Big Ten teams in a single season for the first time in program history.

Illinois is 10-2 all-time against MAC opponents, losing 20-17 at home to Ohio in 2006 and 23-20 to Bill Cubit's Western Michigan team in 2008 at Ford Field in Detroit. The Illini have won five straight against MAC opponents -- including twice over WMU (2011 and 2012) at home -- by an average of 22.2 points.

The line is an indicator of two things.

One, Western Michigan is good. In Year Four under Sugar Grove, Ill., native P.J. Fleck, the Broncos are the favorite to win the MAC led by an explosive offense, and they just pulled off a 22-21 upset at Northwestern -- the Wildcats then followed that up with a 9-7 loss to FCS power Illinois State.

Secondly, it shows that Smith's arrival did not immediately cure all the Illini's ails from the previous two failed regimes. Western Michigan can claim three straight top-60 recruiting classes. Illinois cannot.

"It is what it is," senior center Joe Spencer said. "We knew that Western was a good team. Obviously that big win Week One against Northwestern, we saw that. Watching them on film, we see where the respect is and we respect these guys. We're excited for a good game on Saturday. We got to do what we do and stay within ourselves. Because if we do that, we can compete with anyone. If we can come out and play our ballgame, there shouldn't be any issues."

Said Illini quarterback Wes Lunt: "We'll play it out on Saturday. I don't really focus on any of that. It is what it is. We're excited for the opportunity to play a good team. We'll play it out and just get prepared this week. That's the most important thing."

The Broncos offense averaged more than 33 points per game in each of the last two seasons and just hung 70 points on North Carolina Central in a Week Two win. Fleck -- who said he grew up an Illini fan -- is one of the hottest names on the coaching market, and another win would lift his and his program's prestige.

"You want to win every game on your schedule," Fleck said. "Illinois does. We want to. There's not one game that's more than the others. They're all very important. Illinois presents a lot of challenges for us. They have a great coaching staff, a coaching staff that I'm very familiar with. They've got them playing exceptionally well. You watch that North Carolina game and Illinois pretty much beats itself. I think that's probably the message from the coaching staff is that all the things they could control are fixable, whether that's the fumbles, whether that's the dropped snaps, whether that's the dropped balls or whatever it is. They had many opportunities and they moved the ball very well against a very good North Carolina defense. They really played well on defense as well. They have a really good ball club.

"We got a wonderful Illini opponent coming up. We're going back into Big Ten country which we always know is hostile. They're an incredible opponent."

The first sell-out crowd in five years at Illinois showed up last Saturday, hoping to will the Illini to its biggest nonconference victory in years. About three-quarters of that capacity crowd is expected to show up on Saturday -- to watch Illinois try to pull off its first home upset of a MAC team.

"I love being the underdog, just to prove to the world that we can be the best that we can," senior defensive end Carroll Phillips said. "We don't really go out there and play Western Michigan. We're playing ourselves. We got to clean up our mistakes and go out there and play the ball that our coaches have us playing."

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