The facts: 5 p.m. Saturday at Soldier Field, Big Ten Network, 560-AM.
The records: Illinois 2-0, Washington 1-0.
The line: Washington by 10.
The story line: Two games into the season, the Illini already look like a far better team than many observers expected them to be. That 45-17 thrashing of Cincinnati last weekend? It was impressive in nearly every way.
But certainly no more impressive than 38-6, the score of Washington’s season-opening victory over Boise State. Who knew it was possible to completely overmatch Chris Petersen’s Broncos?
A significant advantage for the Huskies: They had a Week 2 bye, allowing excellent young defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox extra time to game-plan for Illini offensive mastermind Bill Cubit’s complex system. UW’s speed in the pass rush could create big problems for quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase.
Illinois’ defense, which took a clear step forward in the Cincinnati game, will be severely tested by the Huskies’ balanced attack. Quarterback Keith Price, a three-year starter, is a highly skilled thrower who keeps plays alive in the pocket. Bishop Sankey may be the Pac-12’s best running back. Austin Seferian-Jenkins is one of college football’s most athletic and productive tight ends.
It adds up to trouble for the Illini at Soldier Field.
“No one really gives us a chance,” linebacker Jonathan Brown said. “That’s nothing new here.”
They’ve got a chance, but it’s a long shot.
The Huskies in a nutshell: They’re only five years removed from a winless season in 2008, but it’s time, in Year 5 under coach Steve Sarkisian (27-25 overall), to make a big move. UW has gone 7-6 three years in a row; that won’t be good enough in 2013. Even though Oregon and Stanford rule the Pac-12 North and could continue to do so for a while, the Huskies are a lot closer to those programs’ level than they are to the basement of the division.
Five predictions and a game score:
1. Illinois isn’t the only team that’s embracing an up-tempo approach on offense. The Huskies are running a lot of no-huddle and seemed to tire out Boise State’s defensive front in the opener. Depth is certainly an issue for the Illini, whose defense will struggle with the pace.
2. Seferian-Jenkins will be a bear and a half to cover over the middle, especially because UW likes to throw often to its wideouts on the perimeter. Any linebacker caught in single coverage on Seferian-Jenkins is a dead duck. He’ll score at least once.
3. Scheelhaase will blow past 300 yards passing again. How about another 400-yard outing? It could happen. The problems will be avoiding momentum-stealing sacks and interceptions.
4. Cubit will try to establish much more of a traditional running game than the Illini have had thus far. They tried to run between the tackles in the opener, but Southern Illinois wasn’t having it. Cubit called several end-arounds and jet sweep-type plays in the big victory over Cincinnati, but Washington will be on the lookout for those. It’s time to pick up some first downs the old-fashioned way, or at least try.
5. Sankey will put it away with a long run in the fourth-quarter. He’s too explosive through the hole to keep bottled up for three-plus hours.
Greenberg’s pick: Washington, 41-24.