Illinois vs. SIU: preview and predictions

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Where and when: Memorial Stadium, 11 a.m. Saturday.

TV, radio: BTN, 560-AM.

The records: Illinois 0-0, Southern Illinois 0-0.

The line: Illinois by 17½. The opening line was 24. That tells you how little confidence bettors have in the Illini. Or maybe they’re just really impressed with the Salukis …

The story line: The Illini have won 15 consecutive home openers and are 12-0 all-time vs. FCS opponents, and you know what? Those trends mean absolutely nothing.

These guys haven’t won a game since last September. They’ve lost nine straight overall and, by the end of last season, had nothing to look at in the mirror and like. It’s an utterly vulnerable, desperate team that’ll take the field vs. the Salukis. Another opening W at Memorial Stadium — another relatively easy three hours against a lower-division foe — doesn’t sound like much. Yet it’s everything.

“Nothing feels better than winning,” senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said. “That’s what we all should be looking forward to.”

SIU is projected to be a run-of-the-mill FCS team. As bad as things have gotten for the Illini, perhaps the only SIU player who’d start on Tim Beckman’s team is tight end MyCole Pruitt. Physically, this should be a mismatch.

But there’s that vulnerability in Beckman’s players, and in Beckman himself; a loss here and Illini fans won’t wait to begin deliberating about the next coach. Senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, senior linebacker Jonathan Brown and all those who follow their lead don’t need another dispiriting defeat. In the worst way, they just need to win a football game.

The Salukis in a nutshell: Frankly, they have a lot in common with the Illini on both sides of the ball (although they were 6-5 in 2012). They have a ton of experience on offense, but they haven’t thrown the ball particularly well and their rushing average last season — 3.2 yards per carry — was awful. Senior quarterback Kory Faulkner will be making his 19th consecutive start. The defense has only four starters back. As with Illinois and Jonathan Brown, SIU’s D is led by a senior inside linebacker, Bryan Presume.

Five predictions and a game score:

1. Running back Donovonn Young will rush for at least 100 yards, something he has done only twice in his Illini career. The junior had an outstanding training camp, and new coordinator Bill Cubit really wants to get him going and build the offensive line’s confidence.

2. Scheelhaase will surprise Illini fans by chucking the ball deep early in the game. Improved mechanics have added some yardage to his long ball. Ryan Lankford would seem the likely target.

3. Unless Tim Banks’ defense gets a lot of pressure on Faulkner, it’ll struggle to get off the field. The pass rush all last season was poor. Banks has a wide array of blitzes in his bag, but it’s dangerous to send extra guys at the QB when your defense is so young and green on the back end. Other than junior safety Earnest Thomas, the Illini are all sophomores and freshmen in the secondary.

4. Beckman will not, we repeat, WILL NOT, get run over by a ref for the second game in a row.

5. All in all, Illini fans will like what they see. The team wasn’t just bad last season; too often it was lifeless, not to mention boring to watch. Cubit has brought a lot more fun to the offense. More important, the players have come around to a much healthier overall attitude.

Illinois 37, SIU 17.

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