CHAMPAIGN — It’s common practice for a Power 5 school to hand over a cash stipend to draw an opponent to their home field for a non-conference football game.
Far less common is to pay that school $925,000 to come in as the team favored by more than a touchdown.
Is Illinois paying Western Kentucky nearly $1 million to beat them tonight at Memorial Stadium?
That may not be the plan, but it’s a possible outcome as the Illini prepare to face an under-the-radar program that has won 29 of its last 34 games.
Western Kentucky was 11-3 last season, including a victory over Memphis in the Boca Raton Bowl. Fortunately for the Illini, it’s not quite the same team. Gone are three starting offensive linemen, some key receivers and the top running back.
Perhaps the most significant loss is the man who directed the high-powered offense, coach Jeff Brohm, who now heads up the football program at Purdue.
But redshirt senior quarterback Mike White remains, and he alone could cause the Illini fits. He threw 37 touchdown passes (7 interceptions) last season and tacked on another TD toss in last weekend’s 31-17 victory against Eastern Kentucky.
“To me, the storyline on the positive side was 10 of 17 conversions on third down,” Western Kentucky coach Mike Sanford said when reviewing the Eastern Kentucky game. “And Mike White was 10 of 11 passing on third down for 181 yards and a touchdown, and that’s with a lot of pressure.”
That should sound alarms on the defensive side of the ball for Illinois. Its inability to get off the field on third down nearly cost the Illini the game against Ball State.
Despite that, defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson said he saw five freshmen who logged significant playing time improve as the Ball State game unfolded. That includes cornerbacks Tony Adams and Nate Hobbs, safety Bennett Williams and ends Bobby Roundtree and Isaiah Gay.
“It’s always tough when you have freshmen on the field,” Nickerson said. “But for the most part, the game wasn’t too big for them. They were able to settle in and make the adjustments that we needed to make and as the game went on, they played better and better.”
That Hobbs played at all is surprising. The freshman from Louisville, Ky., had just one week of practice after missing most of training camp with mononucleosis.
Western Kentucky will have even more offensive weapons that it did for the opener. Three players who were suspended for an assault at a fraternity house are back, including running back Quinton Baker and wide receiver Xavier Lane. Both are expected to contribute.
Sanford, in his first season after serving as offensive coordinator at Notre Dame and Boise State, made it clear his team is motivated to become the first Western Kentucky team to beat a school from the Big Ten.
“One of our themes this week is that our players weren’t recruited to the Big Ten and our coaches are not coaching in a Power 5 league right now,” he said. “We have to go in there with the mindset that we have something significant to prove.
“We have to go in there with a chip on our shoulder.”
Offensive coordinator Garrick McGee is more worried about stabilizing his offensive line and getting quarterback Chayce Crouch to play more confidently behind it. Neither received high marks in the opener.
“Chayce is going to play better this weekend,” McGee predicted. “He was nervous. He didn’t see much on the field. He was really looking at the defensive line and didn’t have his eyes downfield. He didn’t really set his feet much, which he had done.
“I think he learned a lot. When you’re in pregame and they call the starting lineup in your home stadium and you hear your name, there’s a lot that goes along with that.”
McGee is hoping Crouch’s second career home start goes more smoothly. If not, Western Kentucky will march out of Memorial Stadium tonight with a victory, and nearly $1 million as well.