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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – To get ready this week for Western Kentucky's warp-speed offense, Illinois has been putting its defense through a high-pressure drill that forces them to defend three plays a minute.
"So we put our players in some stress modes, you know, physically, plus being able to communicate with one another on a third-and-five — Do I play off? Do I play tight? Those sorts of things," Illini coach Tim Beckman said.
Stress sounds about right.
The Hilltoppers averaged just under three plays a minute in their 59-31 opening win over Mid-American Conference champs Bowling Green, 96 plays in all for 708 yards.
"We started fast and played fast and we kept the tempo all game," said Western Kentucky coach Jeff Brohm, a former Illinois assistant. "I think our guys were able to wear out our opponent."
What might have looked like a nice, safe win when Illinois put the Hilltoppers on the schedule early last year doesn't look so safe. A few things to keep an eye on Saturday as both teams aim to go to 2-0:
QB BATTLE: Illinois' talk about starting fast against Youngstown State didn't mean much last week until Wes Lunt caught fire in the fourth quarter, throwing three touchdown passes and finishing 24 of 38 for 285 yards and four touchdowns in a 28-17 win. Not bad, but downright pedestrian compared to Hilltopper quarterback Brandon Doughty. He was 46 of 56 for 569 yards and six touchdowns against Bowling Green.
Lunt said that no matter what Doughty does, he won't try to outgun him.
"You've just got to worry about yourself and the offense," Lunt said. "We can't get caught up in what they're doing on the other side of the football."
HILLTOPPERS' SUCCESS: Postgame headlines last week focused on Western Kentucky's offensive explosion, but the Hilltoppers say the key to the win was their decisive start on defense. Bowling Green was down 21-0 before its offense started moving in the second quarter.
"It was big because our offense came out and scored on two of three of their first drives," linebacker Nick Holt said. "That kind of changed the dynamics of the game because they were down. We had them down immediately."
ILLINI DEPTH: Assuming they can get substitutes on the field against the Hilltoppers' no-huddle offense, Illinois will likely need the improved defensive depth coaches and players have talked about since spring football. One problem: The Illini didn't do a good job of getting that depth on the field last week.
"In all honesty, we didn't play enough (people)," Beckman said. "We didn't play enough safeties. We only played three corners."
Zane Petty said he and fellow starting safety Taylor Barton played every defensive down. "Both of us both had (about) 90 plays," Petty said.
QB PRESSURE: Illinois' defense was short on sacks in 2013 with 15 in 12 games. But the Illini dropped Youngstown State quarterback Danta Nania three times. Petty said his view from the secondary of one of those sacks was pretty sweet.
"I looked back at the quarterback to see how I needed to play the ball, and I saw (linebacker) Carroll Phillips like this going over the quarterback," said Petty, raising his arms in his best attacking-bear impersonation. "That's just great to know that we don't have to cover as long. ... (Nania) threw some bad balls because he was getting hurried up."
THE STANDS: The struggle on the field against Youngstown State wasn't what Illinois envisioned, and neither was the sparse crowd. The announced attendance of 36,234 meant that more than 24,000 seats were empty, and the announced figure appeared to be a little generous. Illini attendance has dropped from an average of 61,707 per game in 2008, the season after Illinois' surprise trip to the Rose Bowl, to 43,787 last season. Some fans complain about two straight losing seasons, while others note that the home schedule this year has only one team that even approaches marquee status, Penn State.
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