FACTS & STATS: Site: Memorial Stadium (30,200) -- Champaign, Illinois. Television: ESPNU. Home Record: WMU 0-0, Illinois 0-0. Away Record: WMU 0-0, Illinois 0-0. Neutral Record: WMU 0-0, Illinois 0-0. Conference Record: WMU 0-0, Illinois 0-0. Series Record: Illinois leads, 3-1.
GAME NOTES: The Illinois Fighting Illini kick off their 2012 season when the Western Michigan Broncos invade Memorial Stadium for a non-conference bout in Champaign this weekend.
Bill Cubit's seventh season as head coach of Western Michigan ended with a tough, 37-32, loss to Purdue in the Little Caesar's Bowl that gave the Broncos a 7-6 overall record for 2011. Cubit's only previous head coaching experience prior to WMU came at Widener, which is a member of the NCAA's Division III. Cubit made the jump to the FBS level and served as an offensive coordinator for WMU, Missouri, Rutgers, and Stanford before returning to coach the Broncos. He comes into this season with a 47-39 record at the FBS level.
Tim Beckman should be familiar enough with this week's opponent after spending the last three years as Toledo's head coach before taking over at Illinois. Beckman inherited a 3-9 squad, but he quickly turned the program around and led the Rockets to bowl games in 2010 and 2011. Beckman once again takes over a program in need of some help as Illinois followed its 6-0 start with six consecutive losses before redeeming itself with a 20-14 record over UCLA in the Kraft Hunger Bowl.
The Fighting Illini extended their all-time series lead to 3-1 with a 23-20 victory in last season's meeting.
Western Michigan's impressive ability to score 63 points in a single game starts with its elite senior quarterback. Alex Carder eclipsed the 400-passing yards mark on five separate occasions, including his program record 548-yard showcase versus Toledo. Carder is the nation's top returning QB in total offense (345.3 yards per game).
The production of the Broncos' star quarterback could suffer with the departure of Jordan White, who led the nation in receiving last season. Carder and White's chemistry helped WMU finish with the 8th best passing offense (337.3) and 18th best scoring offense (35.3 ppg) in the NCAA. Wideout Eric Monette, who is a former walk-on, will be the first option in the aerial attack. Junior Josh Schaffer will bring some experience, while the freshman duo of Kendrick Roberts and Jaime Wilson will provide speed.
The offensive line which allowed 1.8 sacks per game in a very pass friendly scheme returns four of five starters. Cubit plans on using a running back by committee which will include Dareyon Chance, Tevin Drake, Antoin Scriven, and Brian Fields.
WMU's defense allowed 28.7 points per game and was one of the worst in the country at stopping the run (219.7 yards allowed per game). The Broncos will be testing its new 3-3-5 defensive scheme which has been implemented by first- year coordinator Rich Nagy.
Chris Prom and Freddie Bishop are both capable pass rushing defensive ends, but the Broncos will need sophomore DT Travonte Boles to make an impact inside. Junior Johnnie Simon will be an important component again at the rover position. Simon was named to the Jim Thorpe Award Watch List after leading the Broncos with 114 total tackles.
On the other sideline, Illinois's offense appeared to be a well-oiled machine with a scoring average of 34.7 points per game through its first six contests in 2011. The wheels completely fell off the rest of the way and Illinois failed to score more than 17 points until its 20-14 bowl game triumph over the Bruins. Junior QB Nathan Scheelhaase is entering his third season as the starter and his progression will be crucial to team's success. He comes in having eclipsed the 300-yard mark only once in 26 career starts.
With his superstar wideout A.J. Jenkins gone, Scheelhaase needs to find a new favorite weapon in the aerial attack. Sophomore tight end Jon Davis implied he could become that go-to-guy with a strong finish to 2011 that earned him third-team freshman All-America and first-team freshman All-Big Ten honors.
Redshirt freshman Josh Ferguson missed most of 2011 with a hamstring injury, but his healthy return has helped the tailback emerge as one of the feature pieces in the offense. Sophomore Donovonn Young and freshman Dami Ayoola will back up Ferguson to help solidify when could be an explosive rushing attack.
The Fighting Illini's collapse in 2011 was primarily the offense's fault as the defense finished in the top 10 in the NCAA in total defense (286.2 ypg), pass defense (162.3 yards per game), sacks (3.2 per game), and tackles for loss (7.9 per game). Senior DE Michael Buchanan appears to be the leading candidate to replace consensus All-American Whitney Mercilus as a leader up front.
Junior LB Jonathan Brown is poised for another great season after leading the Fighting Illini with 108 tackles as a sophomore. Brown led the Big Ten with 14.5 tackles for loss.
Senior CB Terry Hawthorne ended 2011 with a key 39-yard interception return for a touchdown late in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl victory. Justin Green, Steve Hull, and Supo Sanni are expected to start in the secondary with Hawthorne to form an entirely senior defensive backfield.
Illinois has a great opportunity to get the Tim Beckman era off on the right foot. Although Carder is a very smart and talented leader, WMU's quarterback is not surrounded by enough playmakers to keep a defense as talented as Illinois on its heels series after series. Scheelhaase has not proven he can fully lead an offense, but WMU will have trouble containing the Fighting Illini's ground attack.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Illinois 28, Western Michigan 20Game Date and Time
Saturday, September 1st, 12:00 p.m. (et)