CHAMPAIGN — Here are three ways Illinois can beat Western Illinois on Saturday at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.
1. Find another receiver capable of softening the loss of Mike Dudek.
Losing the fifth-year senior receiver -- yet again -- for the season to a knee injury is a devastating blow to team morale and to the offense. Dudek was a respected leader known for overcoming adversity and making tough catches. He had four receptions against Kent State, tied for the team high, for 65 yards.
Two players the Illini will rely on: senior Sam Mays, who also had four catches against the Golden Flashes, his first since 2016, and promising sophomore Ricky Smalling from Brother Rice, who led the Illini with 70 yards on three receptions.
Coach Lovie Smith also mentioned sophomore Dominic Stampley from Champaign and freshman Carlos Sandy as players needed to help fill the void.
2. Avoid a slow start.
Illinois has trailed at halftime in six straight games, including last week's 17-3 deficit against Kent State. It was the first time in that streak the Illini came back to win.
During last season's 2-10 debacle, Illinois did not lead at halftime (including a 7-7 score in a loss to Minnesota) in 10 straight games, all defeats. It has been nearly a year (Sept. 9 against Western Kentucky) since the Illini went to the locker room with an advantage.
Illinois attributed its slow start in the opener to first-game kinks. The last time the Illini pitched a shutout was a 44-0 victory against Western Kentucky in the second game of 2015. That would be a good blueprint to follow.
3. Shore up the secondary depth.
Illinois was missing key pieces in its opener with five players indefinitely suspended for an unspecified violation of team rules. Smith indicated at his Monday news conference those players -- safety Bennett Williams, cornerback Nate Hobbs, tight end Lou Dorsey, wide receiver Carmoni Green and defensive lineman Deon Pate -- would not return against Western Illinois.
The Illini seemed especially vulnerable in pass defense without Williams and Hobbs, both starters, as Kent State quarterback Woody Barrett passed for 270 yards and two touchdowns while connecting on 68.3 percent of his passes.
Three freshmen -- cornerback Jartavius Martin, nickel back Sydney Brown and safety Delano Ware -- started in the opener, and two other defensive backs, Kerby Joseph and Dylan Wyatt, were among nine true freshmen who saw action. Martin had a third-quarter interception that helped set up the first Illinois touchdown.
Western Illinois quarterback Sean McGuire passed for 164 yards and two touchdowns in a 26-23 loss at Montana State, connecting on 20 of 31 passes and distributing them among eight receivers. But he also threw two picks.
Shannon Ryan's pick: This might be the Illini's best chance at a win the rest of the season. Illinois 38, Western Illinois 13.