Illinois football to tango with Broncos in Motown

Erica Magda

Erica Magda

By Laura Hettiger

As the Fighting Illini head to Detroit’s Ford Field to play Western Michigan on Saturday, many people have wondered why the team would stop the flow of the Big Ten season to take on a Mid-American Conference opponent.

While there are two regular conference games left, including the much anticipated Ohio State match up next weekend, Illinois is approaching the matchup as a chance to gain experience and a necessary win.

“Obviously the conference is awful important, but our guys are playing for the opportunity to be bowl eligible, and the higher up we can get, the better off we’ll be,” head coach Ron Zook said at his weekly press conference. “Plus, they understand the importance of this game, and our football team has a lot of respect for (WMU).”

Respect aside, Zook is right: To become bowl eligible, the 5-4 Illini need to improve on their record. Most years, a team needs to have six wins to make it to a bowl game, but with the success of Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan State, Minnesota and Northwestern, Illinois will most likely need seven wins to contend for a bowl berth.

But, as Zook has stressed all season, the Orange and Blue need to take it one game at a time. The 8-2 Broncos are coming off a 31-10 win over MAC foe Eastern Michigan, and they are looking forward to taking on a “very talented” opponent.

“(The Illini) really are a talented group,” said Western Michigan head coach Bill Cubit at his weekly press conference. “Defensively, their front four is just dominating, they’ve got 30 sacks … And then next door is their offense, they’ve got Juice Williams and so many other guys they’ve got there … Maybe as much talent as we’ve faced since I’ve been at Western.”

Regardless of the elevated talent level, Cubit and the Broncos have a lot to gain from this game – mainly in the form of dollar bills.

Because the contest will take place in an NFL stadium, Western Michigan is expecting some sort of revenue. Cubit said Illinois would not travel to Kalamazoo, Mich., but agreed to play in the Detroit Lions’ venue.

“People have got to understand the guarantees and the money that football games have to generate,” Cubit said. “I don’t know how much we’ll make … That is what football has to do and we all know it, it’s a guarantee sport.”

The Illinois players are excited to return to their second NFL stadium. In the season-opener against Missouri, the Illini played at the Edward Jones Dome, home to the St. Louis Rams.

Since Detroit is nearly 400 miles away, there is a chance not many Illinois fans will be able to attend, but that is not disheartening the team.

“It’s going to be pretty cool,” said offensive lineman and Michigan native, Ryan McDonald. “I don’t know what to expect in terms of crowd. People are saying there aren’t going to be that many people there, I’m not really sure, but you know, the facilities will be nice and they’ll take care of us and everything.”

In order to beat the Broncos, Illinois will need to rack up even more offensive yards. All season, Williams has been celebrated for connecting with more receivers and his improvement from 2007. But Western Michigan packs an offensive punch as well.

Last week, WMU put up 502 total offensive yards; 339 yards were on the arm of quarterback Tim Hiller, whereas Bronco running back Brandon West gained another 166 yards on the ground. In Illinois’ contest against Iowa, the offense netted 332 yards, with 272 yards coming through the air from Williams. No running back or wide receiver hit triple-digit yardage for the Illini.

Even though some people might not agree with Illinois facing a lesser-known team, the coaching staff is confident in the scheduling and promises to have the team prepared for any challenger.

“We’re going to play whoever they sign up for us to play,” offensive coordinator Mike Locksley said. “It’s not my job to worry or second guess, we have to prepare for whoever shows up on the schedule that week and you know, it’s Western Michigan this week, a good ball team. We’ll have to go up there and play our best.”