September 18, 2004 (1 PM Central)
Memorial Stadium, Champaign, IL
The Broncos from Kalamazoo will gallop into Memorial Stadium in a few weeks and attempt to bring the Western Michigan football program back to its' previous glory. WMU captured back-to-back MAC Western division titles in 1999 and 2000, but have followed up those two campaigns with three consecutive losing seasons. No matter what their record was last year, any Big Ten team can always expect a tough game from the scrappy teams of the Mid-American Conference.
In 2003, the Broncos were hit hard by injuries, just like Illinois. Many of their younger players were thrown into starting roles earlier than planned. While this didn't help out the overall record, that playing experience can only help the WMU players.
Look for Coach Gary Darnell's team to take to the air against the Illinois defense. Last year, WMU ranked eighth in the country in passing yardage (308.4 yards per game). That was the third time that the Broncos have ranked in the top 20 with Darnell at the helm. To achieve passing success in 2004, Western Michigan will have to ride the arm of a new quarterback.
Senior QB's Chad Munson (150 completions on 266 attempts for 2,123 yards, 18 TD's, 13 interceptions) and Jon Drach (118 of 176 for 1,499 yards, 13 TD's, 6 interceptions) are gone from campus. The likely replacement will be Rutgers transfer Ryan Cubit. Cubit has played the majority of two seasons for the Scarlet Knights of the Big East Conference. Also competing for snaps is junior Blayne Baggett, who has seen limited game action but is familiar with Coach Darnell's system.
As good as the Broncos were throwing the ball last year, they were just as bad running the ball. Apparently, they had to pass out of necessity because their rushing offense was ranked 116th out of 117 teams nationally. WMU has emphasized a more balanced offensive game plan for this season. Running backs Trovon Riley and Daniel Marks will try to provide the Broncos with a double dose out of the backfield. Riley struggled with injuries last year, but found the end zone twice against Marshall. The strong-running Marks was a special teams fixture last year and was the team's second leading rusher with 200 yards.
Kalamazoo native Greg Jennings is the pride of the Broncos receiving unit. In 2003, Jennings hauled in 56 catches for 1,050 yards and 14 touchdowns. Jennings was an All-MAC Second Team selection and has been named All-American Special Mention by Street & Smith's. Jennings speed and leaping ability could prove to be a problem for the Illinois defenders.
WMU will use two tight ends to capitalize on the talents of Tony Scheffler and Tyson DeVree. As a true freshman, DeVree stepped in when Scheffler was injured against Michigan State. DeVree was a second team Freshman All-American selection by The Sporting News in 2003 and has been named to the Mackey Award watch list, presented to the best tight end in the country.
Western Michigan returns 3 of their top 4 tacklers from last year, but the man who won't be back, meant a lot to the defense.
On the defensive line, the Broncos will be without two-time All-American end Jason Babin, who was selected in the first round of the NFL Draft last season. Babin anchored WMU's defense with 115 tackles, including 15 sacks and 33 tackles for loss. Senior Jack Gitler will continue to occupy a spot at end and looks to replace Babin as the defensive leader. Gitler registered 88 tackles, 7 sacks and 19 tackles for loss last year. The 254-pound end also grabbed 3 fumbles and had 1 interception.
Western Michigan was not deep at the linebacker position going into last season, but two guys stepped up and played important roles on their defense. Juco transfer Mike Giorgianni (52 tackles, 1 sack and 8 tackles for loss) and redshirt freshman Paul Tithof (88 tackles, 1 sack and 10 tackles for loss) filled the void in 2003 and should only improve after a year of competition.
The Broncos were thin at cornerback last year and could be in trouble at that position during the 2004 season. Look for DeRae Allen and converted safety Scott Robinson to cover the Illini wide receivers.
Kevin Ford returns to the strong safety position for his junior year. In 2003, Ford registered 111 tackles and was second on the team with 3 interceptions. The Broncos list former walk on Mark Hardy as the favorite to start at the weak safety position.
In his second-year on the Bronco coaching staff, first-year defensive coordinator J.C. Harper will continue to utilize a 4-2-5 scheme.
The Fighting Illini need a big win over their MAC foe to put them into the conference race with a positive mindset. MAC teams are dangerous houseguests. Just ask Purdue, Northwestern, Colorado State and Kansas State, who all lost at home to MAC teams in 2004. Illinois can not take this game lightly by looking ahead to the Boilermakers.
This game will hopefully cap off a successful non-conference portion of the Illini schedule, where the orange and blue never have to leave Champaign. But, not much has gone right the last couple seasons for the Illini, so a loss to the Broncos could end the season before the calendar turns to October.