For Group of 5 schools, beating a Power 5 opponent counts as a marquee victory no matter what the school is. On Saturday, WKU will get its chance to defeat a school from the Big Ten Conference for the first time in school history when the Hilltoppers travel to Champaign, Illinois. to take on the University of Illinois.
With a victory, it would also be just the second win over a Power 5 school in school history since Vanderbilt in 2015, and the fourth win over a Power 5 opponent in school history. The Fighting Illini are coming off a 24-21 win over Ball State and WKU handed Eastern Kentucky a 31-17 loss last weekend. Despite being the smaller school, the Hilltoppers are currently eight-point favorites.
“I don’t feel like we’re the underdog to them. I feel like we can go in there and beat them,” redshirt senior tight end Deon Yelder said at Monday’s press conference. “There’s always a chip on your shoulder when you’re playing a team from a bigger conference. It’s a chance for us to prove that we can play ball at any level.”
The matchup will feature head coaches with two very different resumes. WKU head coach Mike Sanford’s second career game will come against former Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith. Smith went 3-9 in his first season in Champaign after taking over a program that hasn’t finished with a winning record since 2011. Smith will look to take the next step to returning Illinois to national prominence in year two. To do so, winning non-conference games like Saturday’s matchup with WKU will be one of the first steps.
“He’s a cream-of-the-crop type of human being and he has accomplished so much in this game,” Sanford said about coaching against Smith. “I’m going to be humbled to be on the same field as a guy that coached in a Super Bowl and led the Chicago Bears back to prominence. He’s a great representation of everything great about the game of football.”
After giving up 320 passing yards in week one, defending the pass won’t get any easier for the WKU secondary.
Illinois wide receiver Mike Dudek returns after sitting out the past two seasons due to injury. As a true freshman, Dudek earned second team All-Big Ten honors and was first nationally among freshmen in receiving yards per game. Although he sat out the past two seasons, Sanford doesn’t believe Dudek has lost much of a step. His first catch since 2014 was a 16-yard touchdown strike from quarterback Chayce Crouch during the team’s opening win.
“He’s a guy who has worked through adversity,” Sanford said about Dudek.
“That’s a guy that represents a lot about what Illinois football has been historically over the years, great players that play with a grit and toughness. He’s got elite athleticism. He’s back and he’s rolling.”
Offensively, the WKU offensive line struggled to some extent against EKU. Redshirt senior quarterback Mike White was sacked three times and the running backs averaged just 3.37 yards per carry. Despite the struggles on the line, White still finished with a quarterback rating of 146.7 and guided WKU to 31 points offensively.
The Illini’s defensive front is expected to pose even more of a challenge. On Saturday, White will get a chance to play against a style of defense that he is striving to play against in future years.
“It’s going to be great for Mike White since he certainly aspires to play in the NFL,” Sanford said. “They’re an NFL defense scheme-wise. A lot of Cover 2, Tampa and man-to-man coverage. They’ll mix up their coverages like an NFL type sound defensive structure.”
The Hilltoppers also get back sophomore running back Quinton Baker, redshirt freshman Xavier Lane, redshirt freshmen Kyle Fourtenbary and senior defensive lineman Chris Johnson who sat out the opening game due to suspension.
WKU and Illinois are set to kick off at 7 p.m. CT. The game will be televised on the Big Ten Network.
“One of our themes is a lot of our players weren’t recruited to the Big Ten,” Sanford said. “We have to go in with a mindset that we have something significant to prove. At the end of the day it’s going to come down to the effort in which we play and our execution.”
Reporter Sam Porter can be reached at 270-799-8247 and [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @SammyP14.