Last week was bad.
After an entire offseason of talking about how good this iteration of the Illinois Fighting Illini would be, they opened the season not with a bang, but a whimper.
Head Coach Ron Zook’s boys looked out of sorts, unprepared, and injuries to starting wide receiver Arrelious Benn and running back Daniel Dufrene certainly hurt Illinois’ cause, it was not the reason they got thumped 37-9.
The team played a rebuilding Missouri team close for two quarters, and then, instead of coming out of halftime with fire and focus, they fell flat. Missouri appeared to be the better team by quite a large margin, and Illinois opened the season with a loss for the third straight year.
This week should be a welcome change from the poor mouth mood that settled over Champaign following the blowout loss. FCS school Illinois State comes to town and presents what should only be schedule fodder for a downtrodden, yet massively talented Illini squad.
While all the right things are being said by the Illini staff and players about how important it is to take the Red Birds seriously, the Red Birds themselves have got to be wondering if they should even get off the team bus.
Illinois State opened their own season with a disappointing loss...against Eastern Illinois. The Redbirds not only lost 31-6 to an FCS opponent, compared to the Illini getting beat by an FBS power in Missouri. Illinois State amassed just 188 total yards of offense, including a paltry 24 yards on the ground.
The Redbirds are the perfect opponent for a reeling Illinois team that is still beset with injuries, and suspensions. Benn is still limping (figuratively...he hurt his shoulder), and will most likely see limited duty on Saturday.
Dufrene missed almost the entire game against the Tigers, and while he's slated to play, will still not be 100 percent. Backup Jason Ford is also still hobbled after getting just one carry last week, and the Illini's best rusher against Missouri, Mikel Leshoure, has been suspended for violating team rules. Leshoure was responsible for Illinois' lone touchdown a week ago.
Despite the the injuries to key starters, the Illini still have a weapon the Red Birds have little chance of stopping in quarterback Juice Williams. Despite his less than impressive outing against the Tigers, 18-for-28 and 179 yards passing with an interception, Williams should be more than enough to lead the Illini over Illinois State.
Despite the two schools being just 55 miles apart, this will mark just the third time they've met. Not surprisingly, the Fighting Illini have won the other two times, 49-22 in 2003, and 79-6 in 1944.
This game is more than just a chance for Illinois to bounce back after a bad loss. The game must serve as a way for the Illini to regain the confidence they came into the season with, as their next two games will see them face off against Top 10 ranked teams.
The game might also see a new name written into the record books, as Juice needs just 220 total yards to set the Illinois career mark. Considering he racked up 206 total yards against Mizzou, it seems like an achievable goal.