After getting ambushed last week at home by North Carolina, Lovie Smith andIllinois go back to the drawing board to figure out what went wrong. The Fighting Illini better have things all sorted because this week’s opponent is not going to be intimidated. Western Michigan travels back into a Big Ten stadium for the second time this season and they look to go 2-0 against the Power Five conference.
Western Michigan at Illinois
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 17 at 4 p.m. ET
Spread: Western Michigan -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Western Michigan’s offense has played turnover-free early
Western Michigan is one of seven teams entering the week without having a single turnover. The Broncos are joined by Army, Iowa, Arkansas State, Louisiana-Lafayette, Maryland and Nebraska. Can the Broncos keep that turnover-free streak alive against the Illini? Illinois has forced four turnovers in its first two games of the season, with two fumble recoveries and two interceptions. Oddly enough, Western Michigan’s lone turnover forced by the defense so far happened to be a near-fatal mistake against Northwestern. A Wildcats fumble into the end zone was nearly handed right back to Northwestern in the end zone for what would have been a go-ahead touchdown. The Broncos will hope no crazy plays like that happen again in the state of Illinois.
2. Illini QB Wes Lunt looks to shake off rocky performance vs. UNC
In a 48-23 loss at home against North Carolina last week, Lunt had a rough game. The Illini starting quarterback completed less than half of his pass attempts but did manage to toss two touchdown passes. Lunt has five touchdowns without an interception through the first two games. If Illinois is going to hold off Western Michigan, the home team will need a bounce-back performance from Lunt to lead the offense.
3. Just try stopping Western Michigan on the ground
One of the big reasons Western Michigan has been so successful to start the season is the running game. Sophomore Jamauri Bogan is off to the races with 234 rushing yards and a pair of touchdowns after a 1,000-yard freshman season. Junior Jarvion Franklin has been involved as well, and KeVante Bellamy has had an impact with some big runs in the early-going. The Broncos’ have the nation’s 13th-ranked rushing attack through two weeks, averaging 278.5 yards per game. The Illini managed to shut down FCS Murray State (-10 yards!) but the Tar Heels nearly rushed for 200 yards last week and four touchdowns.
Is Illinois finally in good hands with Lovie Smith as the head coach? Probably. If nothing else, Smith’s presence provides for a calm, rational mindset to get the program back to basics. The problem is the Illini were shattered last week at home by North Carolina. Western Michigan may not be quite as talented as UNC is, but P.J. Fleck has his Broncos rowing their way to some hard-fought wins, including in the opener at Northwestern. Don’t be stunned if you see Western Michigan picking up a second road win against a Big Ten team to start getting people to recognize them as a potential MAC champion and, perhaps, lurk in the shadows of the Group of Five New Year's Six conversation in the event Houston or Boise State stumble.
Prediction: Western Michigan 30, Illinois 26
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and The Comeback as well as hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.