UI-Western Michigan: 5 keys
Does Tim Beckman get a win in his UI debut?
If recent history is any indication, today's game might be one Tim Beckman wipes from the memory. In the last 35 years, first-year Illinois coaches have alternated wins and losses in their debuts. Gary Moeller lost his first game as Illinois' coach to Michigan in 1977. Mike White debuted with a win against Northwestern in 1980, the Illini lost to Washington State in John Mackovic's debut in 1988, Lou Tepper beat Northern Illinois in 1992, Ron Turner lost to Southern Miss in 1997 and Ron Zook's first team opened with a come-from-behind win against Rutgers in 2005.
Who benefits if the storm rolls through?
There's the possibility some heavy rain produced by the remnants of Hurricane Isaac could fall on Memorial Stadium during today's game. In that event, the advantage goes to the Illini, who ran the ball on 60 percent of their offensive snaps in 2011. With a running quarterback and three talented running backs splitting carries, Illinois is better equipped to move the ball on the ground than the Broncos, who ran the ball on 41 percent of their plays last season for 1,575 yards.
Is Alex Carder really that good?
Yep. In four games against power-conference opponents in 2011, including the Illini, Carder threw for an average of 351 yards per game with 10 touchdowns while completing 64 percent of his passes. His favorite target, Jordan White, graduated, so he'll try to find a new go-to guy. His last time out against Purdue, Carder had some ball-security issues, being intercepted four times. With a banged-up secondary, Illinois needs to get pressure on the fifth-year signal-caller.
Are the Illini special teams still dreadful?
We're going to find out. Illinois ranked 97th in the country in net punting, 117th in punt returns and 120th in kickoff returns in 2011. The lone returnee is sophomore punter Justin DuVernois, who averaged 38.3 yards per punt as a rookie. Northern Illinois transfer Tommy Davis is an accomplished punt returner who should be an upgrade. The lone bright spot from last year's unit was Derek Dimke, who went 10 for 12 on field goal attempts. Sophomore Nick Immekus takes over for Dimke.
Is the Western Michigan defense better than it was last year?
Better? We don't know that yet, but it will be different. After allowing 435 yards and 29 points per game, the Broncos named Rich Nagy defensive coordinator. Nagy, who will implement a hybrid 4-3 defensive scheme, has a veteran group with which to work, returning eight starters. The Broncos did, however, lose tackle Drew Nowak, the MAC Defensive Player of the Year.