CHAMPAIGN — The Illinois football team has a chance to close the nonconference portion of its schedule with a perfect record on Saturday.
The Illini (2-0) host Eastern Michigan (1-1) at 11 a.m. Saturday (Big Ten Network) in the final game before Big Ten play starts on Sept. 21 in a 7 p.m. prime time game against Nebraska.
“We want to be 3-0," Illinois had coach Lovie Smith said. "That’s been one of our goals is to go through the non-conference schedule 3-0. That’s why this game is so important."
Eastern Michigan has two consecutive wins against Big Ten teams: Purdue last year and Rutgers in 2017. The Eagles went to the Camellia Bowl last year.
"This will be the toughest team on our schedule to date coming in," offensive coordinator Rod Smith said. "That’s not coach talk. That’s not playing anything down. This team is legit. They beat Purdue last year. They’ve been in multiple bowl games. Watch the film. Turn the film on, watch how hard they play, how sound they are fundamentally. This will be the best team we’ve played this year. We better be ready to roll."
Here's what to watch for.
The status of running back Reggie Corbin
Running back Reggie Corbin hasn't played since the first half of a Week 1 win against Akron after suffering a hip pointer. He traveled to UConn last week, and was dressed, but didn't play. The running game, which has been good under Rod Smith, struggled to get going, rushing 35 times for 130 yards.
Corbin, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards last season, gives Illinois a big-play threat, especially without running back Mike Epstein, who is out for the season.
"Questionable," Lovie Smith said on Monday of Corbin's status. "We missed him a lot (against UConn). He is a good football player — that goes without saying. We broke a few, and Reggie may be able to take those to the house, but we need him back this week. Those injuries are tough to predict. We are a lot better football team with him."
Corbin's presence against an Eastern Michigan defense that allows 156.5 rushing yards per game could be huge.
Lovie Smith said Sydney Brown is still progressing. The Illini could use Brown at the safety position, which is quickly depleted. Backups Stanley Green and Kerby Joseph are available, and starter Tony Adams left the game against UConn with an injury last week.
Defending the pass
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Eastern Michigan quarterback Mike Glass III has thrown for 525 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions this season on 54-of-75 passing (72 percent). He has the ability to pick apart an Illinois pass defense that struggled against UConn.
UConn true freshman quarterback Jack Zergiotis threw for 275 yards and a pair of interceptions against the Illini. That was too many yards for Lovie Smith's liking.
“We need to correct a few more things in the passing game," Lovie Smith said. "That’s too many yards."
Glass threw for 337 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions last week in a loss at Kentucky. That came after throwing for 188 yards on 20-of-22 passing for three touchdowns in a romp over Coastal Carolina.
Can the run defense keep it up?
Illinois allowed just 10 total rushing yards against UConn and has allowed just 1.1 yard per carry on rushing attempts and 37 rushing yards per game against a pair of teams that figure to finish near the bottom of their respective conferences.
Still, Illinois has 24 tackles for loss this season (12 in each of the first two games) and 11 total sacks. Oluwole Betiku Jr. leads the team, and the country, with 6.5 tackles for loss and 5 sacks. Linebackers Jake Hansen, Milo Eifler and Dele Harding each have 1.5 tackles for loss and defensive lineman Jamal Woods has two.
The Illini figure to have the advantage on the ground. Eastern Michigan averages just 76 rushing yards per game. Shaq Vann leads the team with 46.5 yards per game. Eastern Michigan head coach Chris Creighton mentioned the 1.1 average twice during his Monday press conference.
“Their defensive front is very active, lots of movement, really good athletes and it’s very well coordinated," Creighton said. "It’s going to be a challenge. (They're) built very differently than Kentucky."
Tough test in the air
Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters has gotten off to a fast start, throwing seven touchdowns to just one interception. But Eastern Michigan's defensive backs are skilled, led by senior Brody Hoying, who won the MAC Western Division Defensive Player of the Week last week.
Hoying has an interception and 2.5 tackles for a loss this season. Kevin McGill has an interception this season and the Eagles have four total on the year, after coming up with 13 last season.
“These guys are very effective in the pass game as well," Creighton said. "We’re going to have to defend the whole field. (Peters) can run the ball, not like Kentucky’s (quarterback), but it’s going to be a full defensive effort."