One of the things Tim Beckman wanted the Illini to do that they didn't in their season-opening win over Youngstown State: start fast.
Saying the Illini took their time to get going might even be a bit of an understatement. Illinois trailed it's FCS opponent at the start of the fourth quarter. The score was 9-7.
Now, Wes Lunt threw three touchdown passes in the fourth quarter, and everything ended up being fine as the Illini got a 28-17 win to start the 2014 campaign. But if they sit around and wait that long this weekend, they likely won't be 2-0.
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Saturday's opponent is Western Kentucky, and coached by a former Illini assistant in Jeff Brohm, the Hilltoppers have a fast-paced, quick-strike offense that could put Illinois in too deep a hole to climb out of. In its season-opening win over reigning MAC champion Bowling Green, Western Kentucky ran 96 plays, totaled 708 yards of offense and scored 59 points.
“The number of reps that they got, (96) snaps, is quite a few reps in a football game," Beckman said at his weekly press conference on Monday. "So they’re going fast paced. We’re going to have to take care of the things that we can take care of first, and that is playing fresh, playing guys through rotations that have to be already figured out not during the middle of the game, figured out right away. We’ve got to be able to put pressure on him. And then we’ve got to be able to communicate. When you’re playing the no-huddle football teams, the communication to the players — not just call but situation — is so crucial. And those are things that we’ve been working on.”
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There are obvious defensive challenges, and that Illini secondary will be tested to the max. As part of Western Kentucky's explosion against Bowling Green, quarterback Brandon Doughty completed 46 of 56 pass attempts for 569 yards and six touchdowns. Yeah.
“It was amazing. Over 500-plus yards and a lot of attempts. It’s a fast-paced offense," Beckman said. "We better be ready to stop the pass because that’s what their first motive was was to pass the football.”
But a key will be on the other side of the ball, too. Western Kentucky had Bowling Green in a 21-0 hole by the middle of the second quarter, and despite the Falcons' eventual 31 points, they still lost by three touchdowns. So the Illini offense is as in need of a great start as the defense is. Keeping Western Kentucky's offense off the field could prove the best defense in this game.
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It's certainly something the Illini are hoping they can do better. And the experience of one game could positively change things.
“You’d like to come out there and play quite well early," offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said Monday. "It seems like we always come out there, we’re just kind of in a feeling-out process out there. In (the Youngstown State game), I don’t want to use an excuse, but you can understand how certain things happen because the only wide receiver who’s running around that played last year is Martize (Barr). So, there was a lot of the guys out there that’d never been there before. You’ve got a quarterback that’s anticipating some things there, and they’re not there or they’re short. Hopefully we can rectify all those things, got all the jitters out. “