3 years ago, in early November, where were you? I was finishing my senior year of high school, about to start the basketball season when I sprained my ankle in a pick-up game with friends, and was confined to my couch. The next day, I would miss one of the greatest wins in Western Michigan history to have that ankle checked out. That victory, a 23-17 win over the high powered Illinois offense led by Juice Williams, propelled Western to an 8-2 record, and more importantly, was the exclamation point to the best year in Bill Cubit's tenure.
Flash forward to today. What do you see? You see an eerily similar Western Michigan team heading to Champaign to take on a now ranked Illinois squad. While this offense is not like that 2008 Illini team, they are actually showing signs of a defense; and have brought back that power run game that is complemented by the smooth passing of Nathan Scheelhaase.
So that begs the question, the upset can't happen again, can it?
I asked Hail To The Orange's Joe Kutsunis a few questions, and while a bit delayed, he had this to say......
Me: Illinois has silently snuck into the the top 25. Whats the secret behind Illinois' success?
Hail To The Orange: A strong front seven. Jonathan Brown has turned out to be a freak on this defense, and the one that was needed to replace the playmaking abilities of Corey Liuget, but keep an eye out for Ian Thomas and Whitney Mercilus as well, two of the hardest tacklers on the team. Without stellar play from each of these guys, the team would have been rolled by the Sun Devils and the Illini would have never have sniffed the top 25.
Me: We have this amazing air game we like to play. Coupled with a still growing ground game, do you think the Illini can stop it?
Hail To The Orange: Yes. It is true that the Illinois secondary is the weak point of the defense, but against a team that loves to pass in ASU, the defensive line claimed six sacks. This defense has not shown a tendency to give up big plays much this season, so WMU will likely be in max protect for many of their passing plays and have to rely on play action to try and throw off the pass rush.
Me: What kind of system do you guys play these days? I only remember the spread offense from the Juice Williams days.
HTTO: Paul Petrino was offensive coordinator for his brother Bobby in Arkansas and Louisville, and when he came to Champaign last year, he brought the aggressive pro-style offense you see today with him. Gone are the days of the end read option and the five wide passing sets, and more and more we have seen two tight end sets, full backs as lead blockers for down hill running backs, and most refreshing off all, successfully completed slant routes.
Me: This is your last non-conference game before Big Ten play starts. How important is this game in your eyes?
HTTO: Very. Coming off of a huge win like this has been when the Illini are most vulnerable, like last year's trip to Fresno State or our trip to Detroit to face you guys in 2008. This team has a legitimate chance to start the season 6-0, something that hasn't happened in six decades, the Illini cannot afford to slip up with that laid out in front of them.
Me: Speaking of the Big Ten, what are your thoughts of the conference? How do you like being in the Leaders division?
HTTO: Seeing as how things have shaken out, I would much rather be in the Legends than the Leaders. Nebraska is tough, but they at least look mortal, there is virtually no chance for the Illini to go to Indianapolis if they have to go through the Badgers. Wisconsin with Russel Wilson is an absolute beast, and it is exactly QB play like that that has held them back from real greatness. I would not be surprised at all if UW plays for the BCS championship this year.
Me: Off topic, what are your thoughts on the recent conference realignment? Do you think the Big 10, with its 12 teams, will expand to 16?
HTTO: At least not yet they wont. But the artificial ceiling of 12 for BCS conferences has already been broken, and I don't see why the ACC or the SEC would in the long run want to stick with just 14 teams. I really don't want "super conferences" to be the way of things, but it seems as though that is where we are heading. The SEC still needs to poach one more team and where that comes from will start the dominoes falling again. If the Big 12 or Big East are picked over again, then they will fail utterly as conferences.
Me: How confident are you about this game, knowing that this Bronco team is very much compared to the 2008 WMU team?
HTTO: I can tell you at the least I am much more confident in the offensive coordinator and the quarterback. Nathan Scheelhaase is bull headed about somethings, but he is a much better decision maker than Juice at this point in his career, and Paul Petrino has shown he is a much steadier hand than perhaps Zook was in years past. Also this is at home, for that much at least I can take comfort knowing that the crowd and the field conditions wont hinder the Illini, we should get their best shot. And if the Illini are giving their best shot, they should win.
Me: What is your prediction for the game and score?
HTTO: This wont be a barn burner, but I think it will be a handy win for the Illini. 21-7.
That wraps up the Q&A with Joe, and what did we learn? Illinois has a potent pass rush, a more tamed offense, and home field advantage. Joe does think that this Illini team is vulnerable too. That said, Western is also coming off a huge game, so they are very vulnerable too. I think it's interesting Western is 0-20 against ranked teams, and while I think in better conditions and timing the Broncos can beat this Illini team, its not one of those times. I don't expect the low scoring affair Joe did, but I do think Illinois wins: Illinois 35, Western Michigan 27