Firing their head coach less than a week before kickoff to the 2015 season was definitely something the University of Illinois did not have in mind when imagining how the days leading up to their game with Kent State would go. Naming a former MAC coach the interim head coach was something just as surprising, With Bill Cubit set to lead the Fighting Illini this season. What's done is done, former Toledo coach Tim Beckman is gone, and it's time for some football.
Illinois is coming off of a 6-7 season, with a loss to Louisiana Tech in the Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl. Losing Beckman is going to be a major adjustment, both on the field and off, and while the team may be in good hands with Coach Cubit, this is a game that Kent State will have every chance to win.
Coming into the season, Kent State has several players returning with experience, returning nearly every starter from the team which won 2 games last season, so improvement is both necessary and expected. Kent was bit hard and often by the injury bug last season, something that cannot happen this season if they are looking for a better result. Coming into this game, the Flashes are set to have a formidable backfield, with the return of Colin Reardon, Trayion Durham, and Nick Holley, the man who became the go to back last season.
When on offense against this Illinois defense that returns impact starters such as Jihad Ward and V'Angelo Bentley, Reardon and company are going to have to limit mistakes, especially when it comes to winning the turnover battle. Gone are Reardon's two favorite weapons from a year ago in Casey Pierce and Chris Humprey, but this Kent State team has something it has not had the past couple years: depth at the skills positions. Replacing Humphrey and Pierce will be Kris White and Ernest Calhoun as the top two wide outs, and Brice Fackler as the team's top tight end. Don't forget about incoming freshman Johnny Woods either when it comes time for Reardon to put the ball in the air.
In the running game, Durham and Holley are expected to lead a running back by committee, at least this early in the season. Holley was impressive last season in Durham's absence, rushing for 516 yards on only 125 attempts, with 3 touchdowns. Buzz around campus in Kent is the staff is hoping that Holley combined with Durham and possibly others can lead a similar attack to the one Archer and Durham led two long years ago.
This game is going to come down to the Kent State defense. If Reardon is successful in not turning the ball over, the Kent State defense is more than capable of doing what is necessary to win this game. The Illini have one of the Big Ten's better quarterbacks in former Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt. Lunt struggled at times in his first full season as the starter, but showed signs of progress as the season went on, and the coaching staff is excited about the potential he has heading into this season. Unfortunately for the Illini, their breakout freshman wideout from last season, Mike Dudek will not be available for this game, and may miss the entire season with the torn ACL he suffered during spring practice. Replacing Dudek in the offense is going to be tough, and while Geronimo Allison could pick up where he left off last season (42 receptions on 78 targets for 598 yards and 5 TD) there is a chance the emergence of Josh Ferguson from last season will help lighten the load for both the receiving corps and Wes Lunt. Ferguson rushed for 735 yards last season, and added another 427 yards as a receiver to bring his all-purpose yards over 1,000 yards last season. This hype video from earlier this week is determined to get Illini fans pumped for the season.
Responsible for stopping this offense is the Kent State defense, which is led by experience from last season, in which they gave up 430 yards per game. This unit will not let that happen again, and led by safeties Nate Holley and Jordan Italiano they have a chance to give the Illini all they can handle. Returning players is the theme for the entire defense, with Nate Terhune, Najee Murray,and Demetrius Monday all back after last season's disaster. JUCO transfer Anthony Johnson is going to be relied upon heavily on the defensive line, and along with Terhune will have quite the test in containing Ferguson from continuing his success where he left off last season.
This is the MAC vs. Big Ten game that has the highest chance for the MAC team to pull off the upset. Just days after losing their head coach, the Illini are ripe for an upset. After finishing last season with a win, and overall improved play toward the end of the season, this Kent State has a chance to do something it has only done two times before: make a bowl game. While that is clearly the goal for the season, it all starts here. Champaign, Illinois, Friday Night Lights, national TV, which team's impact players are going to make impact plays when it counts the most?