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2017 Big Ten football preview: Illinois Fighting Illini

Illinois junior wide reciever Mike Dudek (18) runs the ball during a game against Western Kentucky. Credit: Courtesy of University of Illinois Athletics

Location: Champaign, Illinois

2016 Record: 3-9  (2-7)

Head Coach: Lovie Smith

2017 Record so far: 2-0

All time record vs. OSU: 30-67

What has happened thus far in 2017:

Illinois opened its season with a narrow 24-21 win over Ball State, which was cause for concern. Junior quarterback Chayce Crouch was sacked four times, and the Illini’s offensive line could not make much room for Illinois’ stable of running backs. In Week 2, the Fighting Illini continued to struggle, but the defense improved dramatically, holding Western Kentucky to one touchdown in a 20-7 victory.

Impact player (offense or defense)

Redshirt junior wide receiver Mike Dudek has suited up for the first time in two seasons, after suffering two ACL tears. In his true freshman season, he caught 76 passes for 1,038 yards, was voted second-team all-conference and led the Big Ten in receptions and receiving yards during conference play. His absence might take a toll on his production, but his impact has been visible. In Illinois’ close bout with Ball State, Dudek’s 52-yard punt return eventually secured the win, and he led the team in receiving yards against Western Kentucky, pulling in six catches for 46 yards.

Strengths

Illinois resolved its glaring quarterback issue in the offseason. Last season there was a revolving door of quarterbacks, as a different starter took the field on four separate occasions due to both injury and poor performance. If all goes according to plan, Crouch will start and add stability to the offense. Additionally, there is potential in the young talent that Illinois will have to rely on this season, such as freshman running back Mike Epstein, who got his first start against Western Kentucky and rushed for 111 yards.

Weaknesses

Illinois’ depth on the offensive line raises some concerns. With only three starters returning, this team must rely heavily on inexperienced players. There have been glaring issues, like Ball State sacking Crouch four times. Star running back Kendrick Foster has sputtered to start the season, though part of that can be attributed to a struggling offensive line. He led Illinois in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, total touchdowns and all-purpose yards last season, but could only scrounge eight carries for 15 yards against Ball State and three carries for 11 yards against Western Kentucky. The youth of this team is apparent on both sides of the ball and will be difficult to overcome as the Illini head into Big Ten play.

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