Two teams from different conferences heading in different directions will meet on Saturday when Charlotte heads to Champaign to face Illinois.
The 49ers are 3-1 and won their first Conference USA opener last week, while the Fighting Illini are looking to snap their four-game losing streak before getting back to Big Ten play. This will be the first meeting between these two teams and Charlotte's first-ever game against a Big Ten team. Illinois has already faced a C-USA member this season.
Back in Week 2, the Illini hosted UTSA for the program's first-ever game against a Big Ten opponent. The Roadrunners left Champaign with a historic 37-30 win, and the 49ers are hoping for a repeat on Saturday. Illinois' defensive struggles continue as the offense has seemingly regressed after beating Nebraska to open the season.
The Illini desperately need a win in hopes of turning things around while Charlotte is looking for a signature victory.
Charlotte at Illinois
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 2 at 12 p.m. ET
TV: Big Ten Network
Spread: Illinois -11
When Charlotte Has the Ball
Quarterback Chris Reynolds is completing 60 percent of his passes for 924 yards and nine touchdowns this season. He has two interceptions and been sacked three times, one of the reasons why he's fourth in Conference USA in passer rating (153.4). He's coming off a fine effort against Middle Tennessee during which he posted season-bests for completions (25), attempts (36), passing yards (339), and touchdown passes (4). Reynolds also has 143 rushing yards with three scores, so Illinois can't let its guard down if he gets out of the pocket.
Reynolds' top receivers are Grant DuBose (20 rec., 323 yds., 4 TDs, 16.1 ypr), Victor Tucker (18, 285, 15.8), and Elijah Spencer (6, 98, 2, 16.3). Reynolds also gets support from running backs Calvin Camp and Shadrick Byrd, who have combined for 459 rushing yards and three touchdowns. The 49ers enter this game third in C-USA in total offense (446.8 ypg), fifth in scoring offense (30.0 ppg), and second in rushing offense (199.5 ypg).
On the other side, the Illini are second to last in the Big Ten in scoring defense (26.8 ppg), rank in the bottom 20 nationally in total defense (448.2 ypg), and have fared even worse against the pass (312.4 ypg, 123rd). They also are giving up 136 yards per game on the ground. Linebacker Jake Hansen and defensive back Sidney Brown form the backbone of this unit, which has endured some tough stretches recently.
When Illinois Has the Ball
Quarterback Brandon Peters returned two weeks ago, but he's struggled since injuring his non-throwing shoulder. Over the last two games, Peters has completed less than half (24 of 52) of his pass attempts for 285 yards, no touchdowns, and an interception. No Illini receiver has caught more than four passes in a game since the loss to Virginia, and Peters has been sacked eight times in that two-game stretch.
Artur Sitkowski has already seen plenty of playing time because of Peters' injury, but his numbers (56.9 percent, 611 yds., 6 TDs, INT) aren't so impressive as to expect a change atop the depth chart. Illinois has continued run the ball successfully with 358 rushing yards in the last two weeks. But the Illini can't get into the end zone, which is one of the reasons why they rank next to last in the Big Ten in both scoring (20.0 ppg) and total (343.6 ypg) offense.
Charlotte has had its own defensive issues, ranking 10th in Conference USA in total defense (434.8 ypg) and second to last against the run (235.8 ypg). But the 49ers have limited the damage on the scoreboard (24.3 ppg fifth in C-USA) thanks to a strong showing against the pass (199.0 ypg, third) and a productive pass rush (8 sacks, fourth). Defensive end Markees Watts is the leader of this unit with three sacks and a team-high 32 tackles.
Illinois is 5-5 all-time against Conference USA representatives, but that includes the home loss to UTSA nearly a month ago. Charlotte is just 1-6 against Power 5 opponents in its history, although that win come earlier this season against Duke out of the ACC. Illinois is determined to avoid a repeat of what happened when they played the Roadrunners. It won't be easy, but the Illini will get what they need out of their run game and pull out a close win at home.
Prediction: Illinois 26, Charlotte 23
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— Written by Gabe Salgado, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He can also be heard on WGN Radio. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.