Illinois looks to begin the long climb back to respectability when it opens the season at home against Ball State on Saturday. The Fighting Illini struggled in Lovie Smith’s first year as head coach - finishing 3-9 with six of those losses coming by 23 points or more - after averaging just over four victories over the previous four seasons, and they hope to post their first winning record since going 7-6 in 2011.
“It’s an exciting time for us and we’ve been waiting for year two for a long time,” Smith told reporters. “There is a lot of excitement on campus and I hope they bring it to the stadium.” Illinois won 28-17 in the only previous meeting with Ball State in 2007, and has won 19 consecutive home openers - the fourth-longest active streak in the nation. The Fighting Illini had won five straight games against Mid-American Conference opponents by an average of 22 points before dropping a 34-10 decision to Western Michigan last season, and seeks to start a new streak by shutting down a Cardinals’ offense that was held below 21 points in three of their last four games in 2016. Ball State dropped seven of its last eight games in Mike Neu’s first year in charge and the Cardinals look to take a step in the right direction by knocking off a Big Ten opponent for the first time since knocking off Indiana in 2012.
TV: Noon ET, Big Ten Network. LINE: Illinois - 7.
ABOUT BALL STATE (2016: 4-8): Junior running back James Gilbert was named to the initial Maxwell Award watch list after reaching the 100-yard mark seven times en route to 1,332 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns last season. “I was under the radar a little bit, but a lot of teams know about me this year and will try to stack the box,” Gilbert told reporters. “I love that challenge and I’m going to accept it.” Riley Neal will be the starting quarterback despite missing spring practice with a shoulder injury and hopes to improve on an inconsistent 2016 campaign which saw him throw 13 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions after finishing with 16 TDs and six picks in 2015.
ABOUT ILLINOIS (2016: 3-9): Junior quarterback Chayce Crouch, who has one collegiate start under his belt, will be tasked with reviving a moribund offense that finished 122nd nationally in scoring offense with 19.7 points per game. Senior running back Kendrick Foster is set to shoulder most of the load in the backfield after rushing for 720 yards and seven touchdowns last season, while wide receiver Mike Dudek, who was a freshman All-American in 2014, is healthy again after missing two straight seasons with knee injuries. Senior Malik Turner will vie with Dudek to be Crouch’s main weapon at wideout after finishing with team-high marks of 48 passes, 712 receiving yards and six touchdowns in 2016.
1. Illinois has won 23 of its last 27 home games in August and September.
2. With 112 career catches, Turner needs 17 more to move into 10th place on the Illini’s all-time receptions list.
3. Ball State has won seven consecutive season openers.
PREDICTION: Illinois 31, Ball State 24