Illini Football Game Preview vs Western Kentucky Hilltoppers


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Despite being out-gained by 159 yards, Illinois was somehow able to eek out a 24-21 win over Ball State on opening day, and thus “the streak” survives. Yes, big picture takeaway from week one is that Illini football now has 20 consecutive home opening wins, the fourth-longest active streak in the nation behind only Florida (27), Oklahoma State (22) and Wisconsin (22).

The Illini are 90-33-5 all-time in home-openers. “The streak” began with a 48-22 victory over Middle Tennessee State in 1998, a game memorable for two reasons. First, it ended the program’s 18 game losing streak, which inspired the crowd to storm the field and climb the goal posts. 


Secondly, it was the coming out party of Rocky Harvey, a diminutive back who would go on to become one of the more popular rushers in recent Illini football history. This streak survived four coaching changes, and even made it through the dismal 2003 season in which Illinois was 1-11; that one being a 49-22 victory Illinois State.  

Take pride in the home opener winning streak Illini football fans, but don’t take too much pride, because since that streak began, Illini football is 67-129 in games that were not home openers.

Florida goes for its 28th consecutive home opening win this week, having seen another streak fall this past Saturday. The Gators won every opener dating back to 1989 (the Emmitt Smith era), until falling to Michigan in Dallas. So, I’m sure plenty of Illini football fans are telling themselves this week: “WE WANT THE GATORS!”

The last road team to win an Illini football home opener was Southern Mississippi in 1997; the winless inaugural season for Ron Turner.

KICKOFF: 7pm (Prime time, baby!)

SPREAD: WKU -8 (don’t be shocked if the 2017 Illini football team are only favored once more this season, at home to Rutgers)

Illini football Preview:

Just as that MTSU win in ’98 was the launching pad for Rocky Harvey’s career, perhaps last week is the start of bigger and better things for Mike Epstein. The freshman averaged close to five yards a carry last week, rushing for 54 yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries. The three-star recruit was awarded prep player of the year in a county that’s very well known for being extremely talent rich.

Having greatly out-played starting tailback Kendrick Foster in week one, expect Epstein to see lot of carries and touches on Saturday, as Illinois will look to vastly improve a rushing attack that managed only 71 yards on the ground versus a MAC team that went only 4-8 last year.

Also, credit the Facebook share, from the Jewish Sports Heritage Association, to @Turkin35.

Epstein may have potential in the longer term, but the present is certainly Mike Dudek. As everyone has said all preseason, he is the player to watch and he truly bailed out Illinois last Saturday. Without his big punt return late in the fourth quarter to spark the final drive, the Illini almost certainly lose that game.

For more on the rest of the Illini football position groups, read our full in-depth season preview over at this link.


Illini Legend and CBS Sports College Football Color Analyst/NFL on FOX broadcaster David Diehl keys to the game:

“When you have an inexperienced line that we saw in the Ball State game, if you don’t run the ball successfully, running play action does not help matters whatsoever, and I think that some of the early struggles that we saw offensively.

“You have Kendrick Foster and Mike Epstein, which you know are your two best players offensively outside of (Chayce) Crouch, let those guys run the football, let your offensive line gel and ease into the game and start getting that going before you’re running play action because that was a huge factor in the first three quarters.”

“In the ten play action plays that they ran, it only equated to 18 yards, but it also equated to three sacks.”

More insights and analysis from Diehl over at this link. Listen to the Diehl podcast below:

Western Kentucky Preview:

Jeff Brohm left behind a squad that’s loaded for Mike Sanford Jr. Brohm inherited the program from Bobby Petrino, who left after just one season and returned to Louisville. Petrino took the reigns from Willie Taggart.

Thus, WKU has become a mini “cradle of coaches,” as the C-USA school has seen its last three leaders become the head men at Purdue, Louisville and Oregon.

western kentucky

WKU beat Eastern Kentucky 31-17 to open the season last week.  They also won their third straight bowl game last season, beating Memphis 51-31 in the Boca Raton Bowl. Speaking of Petrino, he seems to have recovered from the biggest scandal of his career quite quickly.

Western Kentucky hired him just eight months after the news broke that he had carried on an adulterous affair with Jessica Dorrell, a former Arkansas volleyball player, who he hired for a job that had 159 applicants; while they had already been in a relationship. Petrino also gave Dorrell, who was about half his age, $20,000 as a gift.

Petrino really seems to have come out of that scandal relatively unscathed as he quickly bolted WKU for greener pastures where he’s now coaching a ranked team with a Heisman trophy winning QB.


Dorrell now works as a fundraiser in South Carolina. It’s interesting because this latest chapter of his career coincided with the Tim Beckman and Bill Cubit eras at Illinois.

You always wonder what might have happened in Champaign had Mike Thomas hired Petrino instead.

Getting back to this week, Sanford, who was Notre Dame’s offensive coordinator last season, brings in a side pegged by many publications to win Conference USA. Quite a few publications also forecast a third straight double digit win season for the Hilltoppers.

western kentucky

QB Mike White is the real deal and he leads a very stellar offense that should power them through to a third straight division title.

They do have some questions up front, but Illinois does not have the pieces to exploit that effectively.

Prediction for novelty purposes only: WKU 27, Illini football 24

That line/point spread just seems way too high. Apparently Vegas gives the Illini football team as much credit as the CBS national pundits during this media conference call I participated in. Have a listen, it’s very telling in regards to the national reputation surrounding Lovie Smith’s program. Of course, also take it with a grain of salt because it was a media call with a SEC rights holder.

illini lovie smith podcast illini

Paul M. Banks runs The Sports and TheBank.News, which is partnered with News Now and Minute Media. Banks, a former writer for the Washington Times, NBC and Chicago, currently contributes regularly to WGN CLTV and Chicago Now.

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