Western Kentucky is looking to extract some demons that have haunted them the past few years when traveling to face a Big Ten team. The Hilltoppers are 0-6 all-time against current teams from the conference and their last few tries have led to heartbreak.
In 2014, WKU held a six-point lead against the Illini before allowing 21 points in the fourth quarter. And in 2015, the Hilltoppers had an 11-point lead heading into halftime over Indiana before faltering yet again in the second half.
Could Saturday finally be the breakthrough for Western Kentucky against what appears to be a bottom-tier Big Ten team in Illinois? The Fighting Illini are coming off of a 24-21 opening win over Ball State. Even though the Cardinals are a MAC team any win is a welcome sight for head coach Lovie Smith and company following last season’s 3-9 showing.
Western Kentucky at Illinois
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 9 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: Big Ten Network
Spread: Western Kentucky -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Two long years
It would be an understatement to say that the Illini have sorely missed Mike Dudek in the starting lineup for the past two years. After bursting onto the scene as a freshman with 76 receptions for 1,038 yards and six touchdowns back in 2014, Dudek has missed each of the last two seasons due to two consecutive torn ACLs in back-to-back offseasons. The 5-foot-11 junior wideout made his anticipated return to the field last week against Ball State and did not disappoint, catching two passes for 47 yards and a touchdown. Dudek staying healthy for a full season would go a long way towards Illinois fielding a capable offense in 2017.
2. Average start
The defending Conference USA champions had some opening game struggles against in-state rival Eastern Kentucky on Saturday despite a relatively comfortable 31-17 victory. The Hilltoppers allowed three sacks on offense. The running game failed to generate much of anything, with D’Andre Ferby and Marquez Trigg combining to average just 3.4 yards per carry. The defense was equally unimpressive, allowing more than 300 yards through the air. The offense should get a boost this week with the return of running back Quinton Baker and wide receiver Xavier Lane who were both serving suspensions. Baker could make an immediate impact as he was the star of the WKU spring game with more than100 rushing yards and three touchdowns.
3. Fantastic freshman
There weren’t many bright spots on offense for Illinois last week as the Ilini were outgained by well over 100 yards in the game against Ball State. One positive that did come out was the play of true freshman running back Mike Epstein, who led the team with 54 yards rushing on 11 carries and had two rushing scores. Epstein was highly sought-after during the recruiting process, generating interest from Miami, UCLA and Michigan but ultimately decided to stay true to his commitment. For a team that lacks playmakers on offense, Epstein’s emergence could not have come at a better time, and he will certainly be a focus of the game plan moving forward.
Look for Western Kentucky to end its 0-6 winless streak against the Big Ten and come out with a victory over Illinois in Champaign. The Hilltoppers have the advantage at nearly every offensive position, especially with quarterback Mike White (above, right) at the helm, and are the far more experienced roster between the two teams. If WKU can get the ground game going to complement the passing attack, this one may not be all that close come the fourth quarter.
Prediction: Western Kentucky 31, Illinois 20
— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. Follow him on Twitter @MBainbridgeCFF.