Illinois Takes On Western Michigan In Detroit

The Illinois football team travels to Ford Field in Detroit to play a neutral site game against Western Michigan Saturday. This is far from the nonconference breather some had hoped for the Illini as WMU has enjoyed an outstanding season. The Broncos have a talented team and intend to pull off an upset.

Western Michigan is 7-2 on the season and 5-1 in the Mid-American Conference. It's only losses were road games at Nebraska 47-24 and at talented Central Michigan by 10 points. They went on the road last year to defeat both Virginia and Iowa, the latter a conqueror of Illinois, and most of their players return this season.

Illinois likely sees something of itself from last year in this WMU team. It is absolutely loaded with seniors. A number of them are substitutes, including a couple who have been beaten out by younger players. But they have stuck around to lead the Broncos to a great season and a post-season opportunity. Any team with strong leadership from its senior class has potential for success.

Western Michigan has a wide open spread offense under fourth-year coach Bill Cubit. Led by junior quarterback Tim Hiller (6'-5", 228), future NFL receiver Jamarko Simmons (6'-2", 234) and junior running back Brandon West (5'-10", 188), the Mustangs gain yards in bunches. They have accumulated 500 or more yards of total offense four times this season and two in a row.

Hiller is approaching WMU career records in just his junior season. He is completing a MAC best 68.55% of his passes, which ranks 9th in the country. While not highly mobile, Hiller has touchdown passes in 12 straight games and has 300 or more yards in 11 games including three in row. For his career, he has 7211 yards passing in 28 games, a 257.5 yard average.

The senior Simmons is finishing a remarkable career. He needs only 8 more catches to have two consecutive seasons with 80 or more receptions. He now has at least one reception in 26 straight games. His 72 catches for 830 yards leads the MAC. He enjoyed his 10th career 100-yard game against Eastern Michigan with 128 yards on 7 catches.

Senior receiver Schneider Julien (5'-10", 175) has had a touchdown in each of his last three games. He has had 10 or more receptions in 2 of his last 3 games. Overall, he has 39 receptions for 491yards and 3 TDs. Receiver Juan Nunez (6'-0", 172) now has 44 catches for 492 yards and 4 TDs. He is uncertain for the Illini game but is improving rapidly. Tight end Branden Ledbetter (6'-5", 230) has 6 touchdowns in three straight seasons.

Brandon West is just 148 yards away from 1000 for the season. He has scored 10 touchdowns and is averaging 5.3 yards per carry. He made the All-MAC team last year as a sophomore.

The offensive line is young. Left tackle Phillip Swanson (6'-4", 307) is a sophomore; left guard Paul Wasikowski (6-'3", 291) is a junior; center Nick Mitchell (6'-1", 290) is a sophomore; right guard Nick Clemons (6'-5", 307) is a sophomore; and right tackle Anthony Parker (6'-5", 305) is a redshirt freshman. However, they've given up only 11 sacks through 9 games.

The Broncos defense was porous last year but is improved in 2008 despite starting three true freshmen. They will give up some yardage and points, but their offense keeps them off the field and rested. Three different players have earned MAC Defensive Player Of The Week Awards. And they gave up only 6 first downs in 17 possessions against EMU last week.

Freshmen Drew Nowak (6'-4", 250) and end Weston Peiffer (6'-4", 245) man the right side of the defensive line. The other end is junior Justin Braska (6'-4", 234), and the nose guard is Cody Cielenski (6'-2", 280).

Freshman Mitch Zajac (6'-1", 220) moved ahead of a senior to start at middle linebacker last week. Junior Austin Pritchard (6'4", 233) joins him at the weakside linebacker spot. He is second on the team in tackles with 56 and leads the team with 7.5 sacks. WMU usually employs senior C.J. Wilson (6'-2", 206) as a nickel back in lieu of another linebacker. Wilson has two interceptions.

The secondary is the strength of the Western Michigan defense. Counting Wilson, four of their five performers are seniors. The team's leading tackler is safety Louis Delmas (5'-11, 196), and he also is tops in interceptions with four. Cornerback E. J. Biggers (6'-0", 189) was the MAC Defensive Player Of The Week for his play against EMU. Irving Fryar's son Londen (5'-11", 192) is the cornerback opposite Biggers. And sophomore Mario Armstrong (6'-0", 188) joins this talented group at strong safety.

Punter Ben Armer is averaging 41.0 yards per punt. Placekicker John Potter is a freshman. He has hit 6 of 10 field goals with a long of 39 yards. Julien is the punt returner, and West handes most of the kickoff returns.

The game Saturday might be a barn-burner, with the game decided on the basis of who has the ball last.

Illini Inquirer Top Stories