Illinois vs. Cincinnati: Preview and predictions

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The facts: 11 a.m. Saturday at Memorial Stadium, ESPN2, 560-AM.

The records: Illinois 1-0, Cincinnati 1-0.

The line: Cincinnati by 8.

The story line: Three questions guide me as I look at this game. The first: Are the Bearcats really that good? The second: Are the Illini really that bad? The third: Am I actually stupid enough to forecast a W for the Fighting Beckmans?

First, the Bearcats. They beat — OK, blew out — what might be a terrible Purdue team 42-7 in Cincy last weekend. They also played some sloppy football, turning the ball over three times. Two of those turnovers were interceptions thrown by Munchie Legaux, who started because Brendon Kay isn’t quite 100 percent back from a shoulder injury.

Last season, Kay beat out incumbent starter Legaux, but new coach Tommy Tuberville is treating this as an ongoing competition. That indecision at the most important position on the field could prevent either passer from getting into a rhythm.

Illinois’ Nathan Scheelhaase will get all the first-team reps at quarterback heading into this game, and he’s coming off a career-best passing performance. Granted, the Illini displayed a lot of weaknesses in their 42-34 victory over Southern Illinois — but they showed they can throw it, and that’s more than can be said for Purdue.

Coordinator Tim Banks’ young defense fell apart in the second half against the Salukis and is on the spot this week in a big way, but Scheelhaase has the opportunity to win a shootout.

The Bearcats in a nutshell: They’ve won, or tied for, the Big East championship in four of the last five seasons. Clearly, there’s a tradition of success with this program — although, for what it’s worth, neither of the 10-win teams coached by Butch Jones in 2011 and 2012 could hold a candle to Brian Kelly’s 2009 Sugar Bowl squad. Cincinnati is gunning for favorite Louisville in Year 1 of the American Athletic Conference. It’s probably a stretch.

Five predictions and a game score:

1. Illinois’ offensive line will play a lot better with guard Teddy Karras back in the lineup. Karras’ absence in the opener against Southern Illinois led to an almost completely shuffled line. Left to right, the Illini should have intact the first-team line that, as a unit, had a good training camp. Of course, better line play would help running back Donnovon Young rebound from a terrible outing and maybe even keep quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase from getting pummeled by Cincinnati’s pass rush.

2. Scheelhaase will have another strong outing. His confidence is higher than it has been in a long time. If he has to match the Kay-Legaux tandem pass for pass, coordinator Bill Cubit’s offense will give him the chances to do it.

3. Illini defenders Tim Kynard and Houston Bates will get their first sacks of the season. Which is not to say Cincinnati won’t have more sacks. It probably will.

4. At some point in the second half, the Illini will realize they’re in a game they actually have a shot to win. This is where they’ll either collapse like a house of cards or take a significant step forward as a team.

5. That point in the second half is also when I’ll be besieged with doubts after making the (foolish? ridiculous? humiliating?) prediction I’m about to type. It’s a good thing I won’t be on the Illini sideline, where my negative energy would surely destroy their chances.

Greenberg’s pick: Illinois 38, Cincinnati 34.

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