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August 1, 2012

Opponent Breakdown: Illinois

As the 2012 season approaches, BroncoBlitz.com will break down each opponent in the order they appear on WMU's schedule. First up: a road date with the University of Illinois on September 1.

Illinois Fighting Illini

2011 in review

7-6 overall (2-6 Big Ten)

Postseason: Won Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl over UCLA, 20-14

It was a tale of two seasons for the Illini in 2011. Bronco fans may remember traveling to face the 25th-ranked team in the nation, a team sitting at 3-0 coming off a win over Arizona State. WMU took the Illini to the wire before losing 23-20 in what many recall as a frustrating loss. Illinois would go on to win their first two Big Ten contests over Northwestern and Indiana before heading into a tailspin, losing their final six games. Though many of the losses were close, the insult to injury came when a weak Minnesota squad routed the Illini 27-7 in the final game of the season.

The six game slide resulted in the firing of seven-year head coach Ron Zook. Despite bringing in solid recruiting classes, Zook went just 34-51 in his time in Champaign, including an 18-38 mark in conference play.

Despite all this, Illinois was invited to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco. Although the bowl was widely ridiculed for pitting a slumping Illini team up against a 6-7 UCLA, Illinois did salvage something of the season by winning the game 20-14 to secure a winning record.


After Zook's ousting, the Illini will now turn to first year coach and former Toledo head man Tim Beckman. Beckman made waves in the Mid-American Conference for his recruiting ability, and was able to turn that into a 14-2 conference record over the past two seasons despite taking over a struggling program in 2009.

Beckman and Western Michigan know each other well, with Beckman enjoying a slight upper hand over the Broncos, going 2-1 in his three seasons at Toledo. Most notable was last season's 66-63 barnburner, which the Rockets eventually pulled out. Needless to say, Beckman will enter this game with some idea of how to attack the WMU defense.

The main question surrounding Beckman and the staff will be whether they will have their systems fully implemented and ready to go by the beginning of 2012. While this is a concern for any new coaching staff, it is particularly so for Beckman and Illinois. After leaving Toledo, most of the Rockets' staff declined to follow him, electing to stay with Matt Campbell at UT. With mostly new faces in place, it remains to be seen how the team will adjust in the early season.

Passing Game

Key departures: WR A.J. Jenkins (1276 yd, 8 TD).

Key returnees: QB Nathan Scheelhaase (63.2%, 2110 yd, 13 TD/8 INT, 624 rush yd, 3.3 ypc, 6 TD), QB Riley O'Toole (59.7%, 270 yd, 1 TD/4 INT), WR Spencer Harris (226 yd, 1 TD), WR Darius Millines (224 yd, 1 TD).

Coach Beckman likes a wide-open spread offense, but he is not afraid to tailor it to a team's strengths. A look at Toledo's 2011 statistics shows a balanced attack; in fact, there is little that the Rockets didn't do well last season. Personnel didn't hurt, but the offense that Beckman plans to bring to Champaign has a proven track record.

The same, unfortunately, cannot be said of Illinois' passing attack. Because of this, Beckman may be forced to run more than he would normally prefer. Illinois does only lose one notable player from its passing game, but it is an extremely notable one. Receiver A.J. Jenkins was selected in the first round of the NFL Draft by the 49ers after a season in which he accounted for 1276 receiving yards, an incredible 53.3% of their total passing output.

This leaves Harris and Millines as the leading returning receivers, combining for less than 500 yards between the two in 2011. Rumblings that star cornerback Terry Hawthorne may moonlight on offense are exciting fans, but nonetheless this is an unproven group.

Nathan Scheelhaase will be a familiar face for both WMU and the Big Ten, as he enters his third season starting for Illinois. An impressive athlete, Scheelhaase has been productive on the ground but arguably took a step back through the air last season, throwing for just 13 touchdowns and often struggling if Jenkins couldn't find open space. As a senior, he will have to take a greater leadership role and do a better job of spreading the ball around. Against Western Michigan, Scheelhaase completed 14-of-20 passes for 133 yards, one touchdown and one interception in one of WMU's more impressive defensive performances of the year.

Beckman has hinted at a possible two-quarterback system this fall, with Riley O'Toole being used as a change of pace. O'Toole is more of a drop-back passer, but would have to show improvement in 2012 for such a system to be feasible, as he passed for just 4.0 yards per attempt last season with one touchdown and four picks.

WMU matches up quite well with Illinois on this front. Millines is the most exciting receiver on the roster, but WMU corners Lewis Toler and Donald Celiscar have proven themselves against difficult competition. The main difficulty for WMU is likely to come against the Illini ground game.

Running game

Key departures: Jason Ford (600 yd, 3.9 ypc, 7 TD), Troy Pollard (475 yd, 7.2 ypc, 2 TD)

Key returnee: Donovann Young (451 yd, 5.2 ypc, 6 TD)

Despite losing their two running backs with the highest yardage output, the general opinion of the Illinois running game is still high. If an Illini offense that struggled overall in 2011 is going to improve this season, the ground game is likely to carry the load. Rising junior Donovann Young is the most proven returnee at running back, and redshirt freshman Josh Ferguson now has four years of eligibility after taking a medical redshirt in 2011. Ferguson was an exciting freshman, but missed the final ten games last year with a hamstring injury before bursting back onto the scene with 150 yards in the Illini spring game.

With Jason Ford and Troy Pollard gone, it is easy to forget that Illinois still brings back their leading rusher in Scheelhaase. The athleticism and threat of Scheelhaase will undoubtedly take some of the pressure off of the new feature backs, helping them make up the production gap from the departures. Beyond that, the Illini return six players with starting experience on the offensive line, although they will have to piece together a bit after regular starters Jeff Allen (LT) and Jack Cornell (RG) graduated.

Last season, Illinois ran for 296 yards against the Broncos on 5.7 yards per attempt. This was a common theme in many of Western Michigan's games, and they will have to do better this time around instead of depending on bending but not breaking.

Run Defense

Illinois had one of the top overall defenses in the Big Ten in 2011, even despite their late season swoon. The run defense, third in the Big Ten, was actually arguably the weaker aspect of the unit. Western Michigan was unable to take advantage of this, partially because of a patchwork early season offensive line and partially because the Illinois run defense was actually quite strong.

This should continue, led by returning starting tackles Akeem Spence and Glenn Foster in the middle. The linebacking corps was led by the tandem of Jonathan Brown and Ian Thomas, who combined for 30 tackles for loss. Thomas is gone, but Brown was probably the more talented of the two with 108 tackles and six sacks last year.

Western Michigan has not proven that they are able to get a ground game going against solid BCS opponents over the last few years. Expect no different in this game-- although it would be hard to do worse than the 35 yards on 21 carries the Broncos managed in the last matchup.

Pass Defense

The pass defense was Illinois' number one strength last season, led by a dynamic and terrorizing pass rush. To the relief of their opponents, national sack leader Whitney Mercilus decided to forego his senior season, and was a first round draft pick of the Houston Texans. Mercilus led the entire nation in 2011 with 16 sacks and nine forced fumbles, and his presence will be sorely missed. All is not lost, though, with the pass rush, as Michael Buchanan, a former four-star Rivals.com recruit, ranked fourth in the Big Ten with 7.5 sacks in 2011 and had 4.5 sacks alone in the spring game.

The secondary also returns significant talent, led by senior Terry Hawthorne. Hawthorne will be a favorite for All-Big Ten honors after making 60 tackles and three picks in 2011. Another senior, Justin Green, will start on the other side, and familiar upperclassmen Supo Sanni and Steve Hull will lead a deep group of safties.

Western Michigan will be well-acquainted with Illinois' defensive system, as they will use a similar 4-2-5 type of formation. Illinois' STAR linebacker is similar to the rover position that Johnnie Simon occupies for WMU, and another senior, Ashante Williams, is the most likely starter at the position for Illinois. At 205 pounds, he brings great size to the secondary.

This was a strength for Illinois last season and Alex Carder still came up with 306 yards to keep WMU in it. This matchup is full of question marks; the expected improvement of WMU's offensive line combined with Mercilus' graduation should give Carder more time than he enjoyed last year, but the deep Illinois secondary is going up against a young and unproven Bronco receiving corps. Expect WMU to stick with the game plan from last year and try to get the ball out of Carder's hand quickly and get receivers in space.

Special Teams

Special teams overall were a major, major weakness for Illinois in 2011. The one exception was placekicking, where Derek Dimke managed a 10-of-12 line, but Dimke is gone. Sophomore punter Justin DuVernois returns after a struggle last season, and will try to improve on his 38.3 yard average.

The return games struggled even more, with Illinois' 15.7 yard kick return average ranking dead last in the country, and top punt returner Ryan Lankford averaging just 1.7 yards per try.

Unfortunately for WMU, they have as many or more questions as Illinois. Undoubtedly, the special teams were better in 2011 for the Broncos, but with the starters at kicker, punter, and both return jobs graduating, the 2012 performance is completely up in the air.

Overall Outlook

It is no secret among WMU football fans that the Broncos have struggled in opening games in recent years. Just take a look at head coach Bill Cubit's season openers while at Western Michigan:

2005 at Virginia (L) 31-19
2006 at Indiana (L) 39-20
2007 at West Virginia (L) 62-24
2008 at Nebraska (L) 47-24
2009 at Michigan (L) 31-7
2010 at Michigan St. (L) 38-14
2011 at Michigan (L) 34-10

For those counting, that's 0-7. Now, in fairness, the Broncos were likely underdogs in each matchup. What is more troubling, though, is the overall performance in the games; the Broncos have made somewhat of a name for themselves beating or scaring BCS teams, but the openers have largely been non-competitive.

On the bright side, Illinois is very likely to be a weaker team than the last few that WMU faced (2009 Michigan excepted). WMU expects to bring one of their stronger squads, and the 2008 and 2011 matchups of these two teams were split and ultra-competitive. Expectations are no different for this game, and if WMU cannot compete it will raise even more questions about their early-season preparedness.

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