Champaign, IL – The 24th-ranked Illinois Fighting Illini will host their fourth consecutive game to start the season when they welcome the Western Michigan Broncos to Champaign.
Winning on the road in college football is never easy, but the Broncos roll into Memorial Stadium riding a wave of momentum. After opening the year with a rain-shortened loss to Michigan, the Broncos have stampeded their last two opponents, defeating Nicholls State and Central Michigan in impressive fashion.
Illinois has the luxury of opening 2011 with five consecutive home games. Illinois had little trouble against Arkansas State and South Dakota State, but Arizona State gave the Illini a tough challenge in week three. With that said, the Illini still squeezed out a victory, defeating the Sun Devils by a three- point margin for their first 3-0 start since 2001. The win over ASU has propelled the Illini into the top-25.
The Illini hold a slim 2-1 edge in the all-time series, but the lone win for the Broncos came in the last matchup, a 23-17 decision in Detroit in 2008.
Ron Zook is aware of what kind of team his Illini are facing this week.
"Our football team has an awful, awful lot of respect for this football team coming in here and I don't think there's any question, all you have to do is look at them, (they've outscored their opponents) 35-0 in the first quarter against who they've played. Their defense is ranked, in most categories, higher than we are."
The Broncos got off to a slow start this season, but considering their year began at Michigan during severe thunderstorms it is understandable. Since then coach Bill Cubit's squad has rolled the opposition, scoring 38 and 44 points, respectively.
Alex Carder carved up Central Michigan's secondary this past weekend, throwing for 355 yards and three scores. Jordan White was the main recipient in the win, hauling in two of those touchdown passes, while finishing the game with 177 yards on 13 receptions.
It was without question the best game on the young season for Carder, who has completed over 70.0 percent of his passes and comes into this game with five touchdowns against three interceptions. His rapid improved from the season- opener is clearly due to his relationship with White, who is leading the team with 29 catches, 363 yards and two scores.
However, the offense has yet to reach its full potential because the ground game has been hit or miss thus far. Tevin Drake has proven to be a reliable option out of the backfield and even though he is averaging 5.7 yards per carry, he has only 183 rushing yards through three games and has yet to find the end zone.
If Western Michigan can produce a more consistent attack on the ground than the offense for coach Cubit should really hit new heights.
Just like the offensive unit, the WMU defense had a slow start, allowing 34 points in the loss to Michigan. However, over the last two games the defense has rebounded by surrendering just 21 total points in wins over Nicholls State and Central Michigan.
Even in the loss to Michigan, the secondary performed admirably, and through three games the unit has yet to allow a touchdown.
Not everything has gone well for this unit though, as the front line has struggled to bottle up the run. Teams are currently churning out 154.0 ypg against Western Michigan, and this is an area coach Cubit will need to fix quickly before it is too late. The lack of success against the run could play a large role this Saturday because the Illini possess a devastating rushing attack.
The Illini have opened the season with three straight wins because of that rushing attack, which is currently averaging 223.7 yards per matchup. There is not just one main option for coach Ron Zook, but instead there are a few players that have helped the cause out of the backfield.
Jason Ford is leading the way with 192 yards and four scores, while quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase comes into this weekend with 184 yards and two touchdowns. Troy Pollard and Donovann Young have a combined three scores, giving the Illini more than enough options to dominate an opponent on the ground.
Illinois' rushing attack met its match this past weekend though, as the team was held to just 105 yards on 2.3 yards per attempt. Despite the lackluster showing, the Illini still managed to defeat Arizona State. Scheelhaase led the way with 67 yards, while Ford added 58 yards and one touchdown.
Scheelhaase also threw for 135 yards and one touchdown in the win on 11-of-15 passing. The quarterback was also intercepted once though and more importantly for coach Zook, the signal caller also suffered a shoulder injury. As of now it looks like Scheelhaase will be able to go this weekend, but it is unclear how much the injury will affect his play.
At first glance the play of the offense would be the main reason for the team's quick start, but the defense has played a vital role as well, and has possibly been the biggest reason for the Illini's 3-0 beginning to the 2011 campaign.
Up front the Illini have suffocated the opposition's ground game, limiting teams to just 63.7 ypg. Illinois' success in that area was evident in the win over Arizona State, as the Illini held the Sun Devils to just 106 yards on 3.1 yards per attempt.
In the same game the defense was equally tenacious against the pass, and while ASU threw for over 250 yards, the Illini grabbed two interceptions and finished with six sacks. Illinois has been relentless and the team's play against the pass should given upcoming quarterbacks nightmares. Through three games the Illini have surrendered just one touchdown, while hauling in five interceptions. The front line has not only stuffed the run, but has also pressured the quarterback, racking up 11 sacks.
Three of those sacks have come from Whitney Mercilus, while Trulon Henry, the team's leading tackler (18) is also pacing the team with two interceptions.