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August 31, 2012

Five keys to Illinois/WMU

As we approach the season opener against Illinois, BroncoBlitz.com takes a look at five factors that will decide which way the game goes.

1. How much better is WMU against the spread running attack?

OK, so this is the obvious one. Everyone is aware by now that Western Michigan's defense was not the best against the spread last year, particularly against quarterbacks with running ability that could run a read option. But this was the focus of the defensive staff all year. While the Broncos were still struggling against their own offense in the spring, many of those gaps seem to be filled in more recent practices. How will the defense perform in prime time? The answer may just decide this one.

2. How much better is the Western Michigan offensive line?

There's not much doubt in anyone's mind that the line WMU is sending to Champaign will be better than the rag tag group that showed up last year. That's not a knock on the 2011 unit that performed fairly admirably, but this line will go about five men deeper and have considerably more experience.

In the matchup last season, WMU simply didn't have much of a deep threat because Carder was forced to get rid of the ball so quickly. The passing game was still effective, but not in the same way it was a week later against UConn, who didn't bring quite as much pressure. This Illini defensive line figures to be just as good led by all-conference end Michael Buchanan, but if Carder gets an extra second on average, that adds a different dimension to the Bronco offense.

3. How much will Western Michigan be familiar with from Tim Beckman's Toledo days?

WMU's coaches are well aware that this team won't operate exactly the same as Toledo did. But how different will it be? Certainly it'd be assumed that coaches are using some of the Rockets' tape to help prepare, and depending on how strong the similarities are, that could mitigate a lot of the advantage that the Illini have in familiarity with the Bill Cubit and Western Michigan gameplan.

4. Can the depleted Illinois secondary handle WMU?

On the flip side, Illinois' perceived defensive weakness was already considered to be the secondary before starting safties Supo Sanni and Steve Hull were left off of Monday's depth chart. Both are considered doubtful for tomorrow's game, and even if they play it's likely to be limited time. Alex Carder must be salivating at the thought, but the WMU receivers have to be ready and able to go downfield and the offensive line must protect Carder.

Remembering that Carder had quite a bit of success picking on the starting safties last year in Champaign, this could definitely nudge a close game the other way.

5. Will the weather hold up?

With all that said, Mother Nature could put a major dent in Western Michigan's plans to take advantage of the secondary. While both offenses rely on precision to a large degree, it certainly stands to reason that Illinois is better built to survive in a grind-it-out affair. Current forecasts show about an 80% chance of rain tomorrow, but it'll likely all depend on how quickly the remnants of Hurricane Isaac move north. If it's soggy all day, the Broncos' passing game certainly suffers and it's hard to imagine the upset.

Later today BroncoBlitz.com will take a look at some key players for both sides that may have been overlooked, and tomorrow morning will feature an in-depth look at the matchups position-by-position followed by full coverage of the opener from Champaign.

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