College/Prep Sports Reporter

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).

Akron Illinois Football

Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters looks for an open receiver in the first half of Saturday's game against Akron at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.

Listen to this article

The LIVE! Report is going to take on a different look during today's game. Basically it will help beat writer Scott Richey (that's me) not have to be in two places simultaneously on the Internet while tweeting and updating the LIVE! Report.

So you'll be able to follow along with my near constant tweets. It won't be play by play. That's not interesting. I'll try to keep it light and fun but also informative. 

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Illinois vs. Akron — 11 a.m., BTN

It's a consensus from the Illinois media contingent. The Illini are going to win today's game. Here's the picks breakdown ...

Scott Richey, News-Gazette — 34-10, Illinois

Bob Asmussen, News-Gazette — 45-14 Illinois

Jim Cotter, WGCU — 42-14 Illinois

Kedric Prince, Dispatch Argus — 52-17 Illinois

Gavin Good, Gatehouse — 49-17 Illinois

Shannon Ryan, Chicago Tribune — 31-17 Illinois

Joey Wagner, Decatur Herald & Review — 38-14 Illinois

Erich Fisher, Rivals — 38-14 Illinois

Doug Buschon, Rivals — 42-14 Illinois

Chad Dare, Danville Commercial News — 36-13 Illinois

Isaac Trotter, IlliniInquirer — 40-20 Illinois

Jeremy Werner, IlliniInquirer — 42-17 Illinois

Robert Rosenthal, IlliniBoard — 47-17 Illinois

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Illinois vs. Akron — 11 a.m., BTN

So a couple starters were finalized for today's game. James McCourt has beaten out Danville grad Caleb Griffin at kicker. Also, Centennial grad Dominic Stampley will get at wide receiver (ahead of USC transfer Trevon Sidney), and Kerby Joseph is starting at safety (ahead of an injured Sydney Brown). At least I think that's Brown on the field in street clothes. His identical twin brother Chase being on the team creates an identification issue if they're not in uniform.

Meanwhile, the Illinois offensive line was as expected with Richie Petitbon sliding in at right guard to go along with the four returning starters. The strength of the line could very well be the tackles. Alex Palczewski is the top returning tackle, but offensive coordinator Rod Smith sees a lot of potential in Vederian Lowe.

"I think he’s transformed his body a little bit where he’s stronger now," Smith said. "He looks better. He’s moving really well. Vederian’s issue, in my opinion, last year was he needed to learn how to strain. He needed to learn how to finish plays and finish blocks. Just finish in general. He was up and down at times. But potentially, Vederian Lowe could be the best lineman we have."

"I think this year he’s flipped a switch. He’s changed form a mentality standpoint. He’s getting it. He understands what it takes. Part of it’s being older. Part of it’s becoming a new father. Your priorities probably change, and now it’s time to grow up — focus on the minor details that maybe you was missing out before. Whatever it is, it’s working because he’s playing his tail off and I’m super excited about him. I think he’s an All-Big Ten type tackle before it’s all said and done."

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Illinois vs. Akron — 11 a.m., BTN

Akron is starting over this season with new coach Tom Arth, who was hired away from Chattanooga. New coach. New scheme. Tough prep for Illinois for its season opener.

"The first game of the season you never know what to expect," Illinois coach Lovie Smith said. "You have to cover an awful lot of things. They have a new coaching staff. Coach Arth, he and his staff came from the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga. They did good things over there.

"We expect a wide-open offense coming at us. Think they have seven offensive starters returning, and a couple on the defensive side of the football. Last year, of course, they beat the team up north, our rival up north in the purple. They also played Iowa State hard. So that's what we're expecting.

"It's just the unknown as much as anything. If you're playing a team where the same coaching staff is in place, it's kind of established what they would like to do. But we don't really know Akron wise. Of course, the head coach and defensive coordinator came there from a different place. You just have to be sound fundamentally, have rules to take care of everything and play ball. That's what we'll do."

The following Tweet from Illinois running back Dre Brown's wife, Lindsay, has nothing to do with the matchup with Akron, but it's too good not to share. 

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Illinois vs. Akron — 11 a.m., BTN

Lots of talk in the last week-and-a-half about the new Henry Dale and Betty Smith Football Center. The $79.2 million facility is pretty impressive. One person I wanted to get perspective on it from was Illinois running backs coach Mike Bellamy — a former Illini wide receiver, who was also on Tim Beckman's staff as an assistant.

The new facility is more than Illinois' ever had.

"I think it takes you to another level," Bellamy said. "Now you can compete. The first thing in today’s football world in recruiting, it’s all about facilities. It’s all about uniforms. Now you can compete with everybody else. Compete with the big boys and have something you can show and be proud of. 

"The better the players you have, the better opportunity you have to win. The better facility, the better opportunity to get the better players. That’s what they’re looking for today. You don’t expect a miracle to happen — no genie is going to come out the bottle — but … now it’s time to put up or shut up."

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Illinois vs. Akron — 11 a.m., BTN

About the Illinois defense. It was bad last season. No getting around that. You don't rank 128th (of 130 FBS teams) in total team defense by accident. It took giving up more than 500 yards per game and a 63-spot to three different Big Ten opponents.

Two differences in the Illini defense from last year's season opener to today's game? Lovie Smith is the defensive coordinator and play caller (although that didn't really change things at the end of last season after Hardy Nickerson resigned).

Also, more base 4-3 looks. Illinois went nickel package almost exclusively last season. It, uh, didn't always work. The main defensive look during training camp, though, was a full complement of three linebackers. Having Milo Eifler available and switching Delano Ware to strong side linebacker could help the Illini in pass coverage situations while maintaining an ability to get pressure in the backfield if necessary.

"I think you add a lot of athleticism with Milo and Delano Ware," redshirt junior linebacker Jake Hansen said. He'll start on the weak side. "Delano making his transition to linebacker, he’s a great coverage guy. Milo can do it all. Dele Harding is also a great linebacker and has some experience playing for us at (middle linebacker). We definitely complement each other."

Also still a priority for the Illinois defense? Takeaways. That's been a focus ever since Smith arrived, but the Illini have mostly finished seasons with a negative turnover margin. Too many times giving the ball away. Not enough taking it back to compensate.

"It’s just a focus on punching the ball out — getting the ball out," Hansen said. "Strip attempts and knowing what you’re doing in zone coverage as well. Those all play factors in making plays and getting after the ball."

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Good morning, good morning. While college football technically started a week ago with some "Week Zero" games and more were played in the past couple days, this is the first true Saturday of the college football season. It starts now.

Of course with the start of the season comes expectations. Plenty of those at Illinois, where Lovie Smith enters his fourth year as coach holding just a 9-27 overall record and 4-23 mark in the Big Ten. Now would be the time for some improvement (i.e. more wins).

Smith is pretty confident the Illini have made the proper steps forward to do just that. Today's game against Akron will be the first test. Smith has admitted as much. He saw improvement in the spring. More in training camp. Showing the same against the Zips is the necessary progression.

All eyes will be on the Illinois defense, of course, after last year's debacle. But some will probably shift toward Michigan transfer quarterback Brandon Peters. He earned the job in training camp — something that became progressively clear as camp entered its second week. Now he's got to show shy in live game situations.

We'll be chronicling the whole thing right here at IlliniHQ.com, with the LIVE! Report running throughout the entire game. Plus, all of our typical postgame coverage from Bob Asmussen and yours truly.

Scott Richey covers college basketball for The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).