illustration by Jonathan Kahn

PREVIEW & PICK: Illinois vs. Western Michigan

An underdog at home, Illinois is looking to avoid its first loss to MAC opponent since 2008, while Western Michigan looks to double up on wins against the Big Ten in 2016

W. Michigan (2-0) at Illinois (1-1)

Time: 3:01 p.m. CT

TV: ESPNews - Mike Couzens (play by play) and Dan Hawkins (analysis)

Series: Illinois leads the all-time series 4-1 with WMU winning in 2008 at Ford Field and Illinois winning the last two in Champaign (2011 and 2012)

Vegas betting line: Western Michigan (+3)

Last week: Illini lost to North Carolina 48-23; WMU beat NC Central 70-21

The week's links

Unfamiliar Underdogs: Illini the underdog to a MAC opponent for first time

Know Your Enemy: Justin Dacey breaks down WMU and makes his prediction

Illini Inquirer TV Episode 1.2: Breaking down UNC loss, previewing WMU

Upon Further Review: Reaction (good and bad) to the UNC film

Werner: How quickly will Illini fans flock back to fill Memorial Stadium?

WATCH: Meet Illini OL Jordan Fagan

WATCH: Illini OC Garrick McGee reviews UNC issues, previews WMU

WATCH: Illini DC Hardy Nickerson reviews UNC, previews WMU

Werner: Lunt shoulders blame following deflating UNC loss

Number-crunching

3: Runs of 50+ yards this year for Illinois, tied for most in the nation with Navy and New Mexico

3: Different offensive line starting fives the Illini have had during the first three games, assuming redshirt freshman Gabe Megginson (ankle) is unable to play Saturday

3.6: Yards per pass Wes Lunt and the Illini averaged against UNC in the Week Two loss

6: Fumbles Illinois had against UNC, though the Illini lost just one

6.5: Tackles for loss for Illini senior defensive end Carroll Phillips, which ranks tied for the FBS lead

13: WMU has won time of possession in 13 straight games and had 39:04 time of possession in win at Northwestern

19: Votes of 26 by MAC media for WMU to win the MAC Championship this season

48:  National recruiting ranking for the Western Michigan 2016 recruiting class, the Broncos' third straight top-60 recruiting class

151.2: Career passing efficiency for WMU quarterback Zach Terrell, which ranks ninth among active FBS quarterbacks.

515.0: Total yards per game for WMU, which ranks 20th nationally

4,005: Career receiving yards for WMU senior Corey Davis, which leads among active college players and is just 185 yards from the all-time MAC receiving record and 1,000 yards away from the all-time FBS receiving record

Eight Broncos to watch

1. Corey Davis, WR: The Biletnikoff Award Watch List candidate -- WMU also created a Heisman campaign website for him -- is the active FBS leader in career receiving yards (4,005) and the No. 90 prospect in the 2017 NFL Draft, according to CBS Sports. The Wheaton, Ill., native offers size, physicality, great hands and precise route-running. He is just 1,001 yards away from becoming the FBS all-time leader in receiving yards.

2. Zach Terrell, QBThe 6-foot-2, 202-pound redshirt senior has surpassed 9,000 total yards for his career and could finish his career atop nearly every career QB record at WMU. He was the nation's seventh most efficient passer in the country in 2015 with a mark of 162.3. He ran for 40 yards against Northwestern.

3. Jarvion Franklin, RB: The 6-foot-2, 228-pound junior won MAC Freshman of the Year honors when he ran for 1,551 yards and 24 touchdowns in 2014. The Tinley Park, Ill., native ran for 735 yards and five touchdowns last season as he split carries with Bogan. He's the thunder in the WMU run attack.

4. Jamauri Bogan, RB: The 5-foot-7, 187-pound sophomore won MAC Freshman of the Year honors after he ran for 1,051 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2015. He's the lightning in the WMU run attack.

5. Taylor Moton, OT: The Western Michigan senior will be the best offensive lineman on the field on Saturday. CBS Sports ranks him as the No. 13 offensive tackle prospect for the 2017 NFL Draft.

6. Darius Phillips, CB/KR: The 5-foot-10, 191-pound junior played receiver as a freshman but was sixth in the country last year with 20 pass break-ups after moving to cornerback. He also is a dangerous returner, earning All-American honors as a kick returner in 2014 and returned a punt for a 66-yard touchdown last week against NC Central.

7. Keion Adams, DE/LB: The 6-foot-2, 245-pound senior had a sack and three quarterback hurries at Northwestern.

8. Robert Spillane, LB: The Oak Park, Ill., native is the heart and soul of the Broncos defense. He's not the biggest nor fastest, but he's physical and a good leader.

Scouting the Broncos

Offense: Western Michigan has a prolific spread offense led by a very strong offensive line. The Broncos front five, which features three possible future pros, gets a positive push up front and keeps a comfortable pocket for its experienced quarterback. The Broncos rotate three talented running backs and have a solid receiver corps led by one of the best in the nation. The Broncos will run almost exclusively out of the shotgun and run a lot of zone-read option, including zone-read play-action passes. The quarterback won't run often but he is a running threat. The Broncos also run a lot of bubble screens to receivers and running back flares. WMU often uses an H-Back who lines up off the line of scrimmage and often motions pre-snap.

Defense: Western Michigan doesn't have great size nor athleticism up front so its defense relies on chaos and confusion out of its 3-4 defense. The Broncos line up three down linemen and try to disguise their linebacker blitzes at the line of scrimmage. WMU often sells out against the run. For instance, the Broncos shut down Justin Jackson and forced Northwestern to throw the ball. The Broncos don't have quite the talent on defense as they do on offense, so expect them to be very aggressive and accept the consequences. They'll run a mix of man and zone coverage.

Keys to the game

1. Contain, wrap up and tackle in space: This WMU offense can pound it in the middle but a lot of the Broncos' offense depends on either the zone-read option or getting the ball to playmakers in space. Illinois missed several tackles against North Carolina that allowed some of the Tar Heels best plays. If Illinois contains on the outside, wraps up and tackles (everyone just watch Hardy Nickerson tackle), then they can slow the Broncos' potent attack. That's just easier said than done.

2. More dominant D-line: The Tar Heels offensive line kept the Illini defensive line in check. Sure, Illinois had two sacks and got some pressure, but UNC quarterback MItch Trubisky had enough time in the pocket to expose Illinois' holes in the back seven. WMU's offensive line is legit, featuring three players with real pro potential. The Broncos won the battle of the trenches against Northwestern. They can get a push and give Terrell a great pocket. Illinois' talented front four definitely will win battles on Saturday, but they need to win more than they did against UNC -- or risk the back seven getting exposed again.

3. Pick apart Broncos' green secondary:  Garrick McGee said the key to this game is that his offensive line -- which will likely include Jordan Fagan replacing injured Gabe Megginson in the starting lineup -- must win one-on-one battles at the point of attack. It's time for Illinois to play some successful smash-mouth football. WMU isn't that strong up front, so Illinois needs to run effectively. But WMU's blitz-happy defense should open a lot of one-on-one match-ups for the wide receivers, and WMU starts three underclassmen in the secondary, including two redshirt freshmen. Wes Lunt played one of his worst games against UNC's blitz-heavy attack. The Illini receivers played poorly against UNC's experienced, quick secondary. If they can't bounce back this week, the Big Ten will be a long slog.

Illini in the spotlight

Offense

Justin Hardee, WR: Lunt has received a bulk of the criticism for the passing game's failures against North Carolina, but the receivers share some blame too. The Illini struggled to get open against a good North Carolina secondary. And when Lunt finally made good throws, the receivers dropped key passes. Illinois needs a receiver who can stretch defenses and make plays after the catch. Hardee has that speed but dropped a crossing route that had a lot of YAC potential against UNC. The Illini need the senior to step up.

Defense

Darius Mosely, CB: Illini junior Jaylen Dunlap has shown some promise early on. He's long and physical. Nickel back Chris James also has made some nice plays in the nickel, but the Illini need their other perimeter cornerback to step up. UNC picked on Mosely a bit, who showed a lot of struggles in man coverage last season and continued those struggles on Saturday. With such a potent passing attack coming to town, Illinois needs its senior to be better -- especially since WMU lines Corey Davis all over the field.

Prediction

Is Illinois closer to North Carolina or Western Michigan? The truth is probably the latter, if you look at recruiting class rankings and recent records. The Broncos are the most talented team in the MAC and the favorite to win the conference. They are a worthy opponent, and Illinois needs to approach them as such. 

But the Broncos still come into Champaign with nothing to lose and everything to gain. A win would give the Broncos their first season with two Big Ten wins, their first 3-0 start since 1993 and a possible path to an undefeated season. WMU will be aggressive. They are in Year Four of P.J. Fleck, an Illinois native who wanted this job once Tim Beckman was fired. He said every game is like the other. But he remembers each wide receiver recruit then-Illinois coach Ron Turner recruited over him for a reason. He has a massive chip on his shoulder -- just like many of his recruits who didn't receive Big Ten offers. Plus, those recruits now have been playing in -- an winning in -- his schemes for a few years.

Illinois, meanwhile, still is trying to figure itself out under Lovie Smith. A win last week would've likely given Smith's program unbelievable momentum and created an excitement in Champaign unseen since the 2007 Rose Bowl. But after a 48-23 loss to UNC, the prospect of a follow-up loss to Western Michigan seemingly would take the air out of the bubble of optimism. Even if WMU is a talented team, it's a MAC team, and Illinois simply needs to beat MAC teams (otherwise, the Illini really still are at Purdue's level).

Illinois has more talent, just not a ridiculous amount more. Still, if the Illini execute their game plan, they should enter Nebraska 2-1. But if they make mistakes like against North Carolina, WMU -- which already showed it is plenty capable of taking down a Big Ten team -- will pounce.

Illinois 27, Western Michigan 23


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