(Updated: CORRECTING POINT SPREAD)
Illinois looks to build on the momentum of a season-opening come-from-behind win when it hosts Western Kentucky in a non-conference contest Saturday. The Illini needed a touchdown run with just over two minutes to play and a blocked field goal on the final play to earn a three-point win over Ball State.
Coach Lovie Smith and Illinois are looking to improve this week, especially with junior quarterback Chayce Crouch having his first collegiate start at home under his belt and leading a rally late in the fourth. The Illinois offense wasn’t sharp — managing just 216 yards of total offense and holding the ball for only 23:27 of the contest — so there’s definitely room for improvement in many areas. But when the game was on the line, all parts of the team — offense, defense and special teams — came up with big plays to help the Illini earn their 20th consecutive home-opening win. Western Kentucky was able to build a big lead behind quarterback Mike White (20-of-31, 264 yards, 1 TD) and hold on for a home victory over Eastern Kentucky last week.
TV: 8 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network. LINE: Western Kentucky -7.5
ABOUT WESTERN KENTUCKY (1-0): One area that didn’t please the Western Kentucky coaches in the season-opening win was the lack of a consistent pass rush. Eastern Kentucky threw the ball 48 times but the only sack the Hilltoppers recorded came on a blitz by cornerback Joe Brown. Western Kentucky only rushed four defensive linemen on most downs in the opener, but look for more blitzing against the Illini to try to shake things up and get back to the defense that averaged 2.43 sacks a game last season.
ABOUT ILLINOIS (1-0): The Illini coaching staff has a lot of confidence in Crouch and expects him to continue to grow as a leader and productive signal-caller as the season progresses. Crouch was 10-of-19 for 145 yards and a touchdown in the opener, but the coaches don’t want to overload the junior early on, letting him grow into the role as the team focuses on the ground attack. The hope is that running backs Kendrick Foster (15 rushing yards in opener) and Mike Epstein (54 rushing yards, two TDs, two catches for 32 yards) can help give Crouch a bit of a safety blanket and help him gain confidence as the season progresses.
1. Western Kentucky is seeking its first win over a member of the Big Ten Conference, going 0-6 in previous meetings with members of the league.
2. Illinois LB Del’Shawn Phillips leads the Big Ten in tackles after the opening week, registering 16 in the win over Ball State.
3. Illini senior WR Malik Turner has caught at least one pass in 21 straight contests and 28 of his last 29 games.
PREDICTION: Western Kentucky 31, Illinois 24