Beat writer SCOTT RICHEY breaks down five hot topics ahead of the 11 a.m. kickoff against Eastern Michigan:
Illinois is back on BTN Saturday for its final nonconference game with Mike Monaco (play-by-play) and former Illini All-American linebacker J Leman (analysis) on the call. There’s more than just the first 3-0 start since 2011 on the line Saturday for the Illini. A loss to Eastern Michigan would actually give Illinois fewer Big Ten wins than the Eagles since the start of the 2017 season. The Illini currently have two with victories against Rutgers and Minnesota last year. Eastern Michigan also has two — Rutgers in 2017 and Purdue in 2018.
Gameday takes on a educational theme Saturday at Memorial Stadium, with Illinois celebrating Central Illinois teachers with both free tickets for students made available and five area schools in Champaign, Urbana, Rantoul and Tuscola receiving a $500 donation via the College Football Playoff’s Extra Yard for Teachers program. Grange Grove is also getting a makeover into Grainger Grove, with more than 20 interactive stations set up by The Grainger College of Engineering with themes including space exploration, robotics and physics.
Not your father’s Eagles
Success this century has been few and far between for Eastern Michigan — at least until the current Chris Creighton era. The Eagles have appeared in two bowl games (2016 and 2018) under Creighton, who’s now in his sixth season as coach, after his last three non-interim predecessors went to zero bowls and combined for a 36-122 record. “This will be the toughest team on our schedule to date,” Illinois offensive coordinator Rod Smith said. “That’s not coach talk. That’s not playing anything down. This team’s legit. ... Turn the film on, watch how hard they play and how sound they are fundamentally.”
Remember the Illinois defense using the fact it finished the 2018 season ranked 128th in total defense as motivation? It’s a small sample size, but through two games, it seems to be working. The Illini have allowed just 238.5 yards per game in beating Akron and UConn to rank 18th nationally. But allow Jake Hansen to temper expectations a bit. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s a big confidence booster, and we all know some of the stats and we’re all paying attention to that kind of stuff,” Hansen said. “I think it’s really motivating in wanting to be better and improve the pass game (Saturday).”
Predicting the future
Illinois’ eight-point victory against UConn got plenty of “a win is a win” from the fan base, but there were areas of concern nonetheless — pass coverage and turnovers certainly — that a better team might have been able to exploit even further. Could Eastern Michigan be that better team? The Eagles are at least the best nonconference opponent the Illini will face this season. Still, Illinois is an eight-point favorite for a reason. Lovie Smith and his coaching staff have more talent to work with, and that group found out it can face a little adversity and still win.
Illini 35, Eagles 24