A few seasons ago - in 2008, to be precise - Western Michigan ambushed Illinois late in the season to keep the Illini from going bowling. When the two schools reunite this weekend, the Illinois Fighting Illini won't want revenge, however. They'll simply want to make sure that they don't mess up a good thing.
Yes, the priority for the Orange Crush is to avoid slipping on the banana peel they way they have on so many occasions in the past. Illinois, ranked for the first time in three years, will play its final nonconference game on Saturday at Memorial Stadium when the Western Michigan Broncos visit. Illinois, now ranked 24th in the AP Poll, has a chance to start 4-0 for the first time since their 1951 national championship season. The schedule is soft, there's no question about it, but the Illini did show in their most recent game that they might have more backbone and grit than they did from 2008 through 2010, when they flopped and ultimately floundered.
Last week, the Illini defeated then-22nd-ranked Arizona State 17-14. It was Illinois' first win over a ranked nonconference opponent in its last ten attempts, a startling statistic which only increased the value of the victory itself. The Illini defense racked up six sacks and two interceptions against the Sun Devils. Illinois has now forced eight turnovers in its first three games.
Illinois' offense was run-heavy against the Sun Devils, but often struggled, picking up just 105 yards on the ground and gaining a mere 2.3 yards per attempt. Nathan Scheelhaase attempted just 15 passes, completing 11 for 135 yards, one touchdown, and one interception. Scheelhaase was Illinois' top rusher, with 67 yards on 18 carries. Starting tailback Jason Ford carried 21 times for 58 yards. The Sun Devils took a 14-10 lead early in the fourth quarter, but Scheelhaase hit A.J. Jenkins for a 16-yard touchdown, the eventual game-winner, with 9:59 to play. Jenkins finished with 103 yards on six receptions.
The Broncos were outstanding last week in trouncing rival Central Michigan 44-14 in the teams' Mid American Conference opener. Alex Carder threw for 355 yards and three touchdowns. Jordan White caught 13 passes for 177 yards and two touchdowns. White has caught 29 passes for 363 yards this season.
Western Michigan is closer to the top of the Mid-American Conference than to the bottom. If the Broncos start strong, Illinois could get nervous and recall its penchant for failure. This is a game Illinois should win, but it's a definite test of mental might before the Big Ten season gets rolling.