With the regular season looming, it seems pertinent that we bring you a week one preview. The Illini will kick off the regular season against a familiar opponent, Western Michigan. The Illini played the Broncos at home last year and will look to improve upon their close 23-20 win. The Broncos finished the 2011 season with the same record as Illinois (7-6) and they went 5-3 in the MAC (a conference that Tim Beckman should know quite well by now).
Beckman spent three years in the MAC and significantly improved his record each year. Beckman became head coach at Toledo after the team finished 3-9. From 2008 to 2011 he improved from 5-7, 8-5 (7-1 in MAC), and last season he was 9-4 (7-1 in MAC). In his last two seasons he took Toledo to consecutive bowl games and went a combined 14-2 in the MAC conference. By now, Beckman should know that conference like the back of his hand, giving the Illini a significant edge in this contest.
Western Michigan has 16 returning starters including their quarterback Alex Carder, who helped them rank eighth nationally in passing (337.3 ypg), 18th in scoring (35.3 ppg) and 19th in total yards (458.5 ypg). The Broncos have lost their superstar wide-out (Jordan White), but will have the returning MAC defensive player of the year, Drew Nowak. He will be working with a new defensive coordinator, but will also be hoping for some support from his quarterback and returning fleet of running backs. The pressure will surely be on because Illinois will try to mimic last year’s performance, in which they ran over the Bronco D with 269 rushing yards.
This game is absolutely vital for the Illini. If they can come out and make a statement, it will help them build momentum and instill confidence in not only the team, but also the fans. Like we saw last year, when the Illini are hot, the fans are on board (who wouldn’t be). Most fans remember the last-second score that lifted the Illini over Northwestern in a tight battle that ended 38-35.
The win kept the Illini without a loss at 5-0 and kept the fans thinking the team was actually legit. After the game, the stadium erupted and quickly emptied with crazed fans who sprinted to KAMS (home of the drinking Illini). The Illinois students generally drown their sorrows at this bar, but this night was different from all other nights because they were celebrating. The Illini would only get one more week to drink for a happy cause and an undefeated record.
Two weeks later, as we all know, they started their six game slide. No biggie right? The drinking Illini probably just went right back to KAMS for drinks that matched their moods (blue…the bar is known for its drinks called “blue guys”). Although the Illinois students don’t need an excuse to drink, it would be nice if the team could win a few games and gather some support from their classmates. After all, they still go to school right?
The first game is by no means a make-or-break game for the season, but instilling confidence in a team is a lot easier after a week one victory. We know that fans will be drinking at KAMS, win or lose, but let’s hope they’re there because the Illini shocked the world starting 6-0 again. The Illini have a retched schedule away from Memorial Stadium so it’s crucial that they win at home.
WEEK ONE PREDICTION: Illinois-31 over Western Michigan 24
SEASON PREDICTION: 8-4 with a bowl appearance.