Illinois football hosts Charlotte, looks to end losing skid

Kicker+James+McCourt+begins+to+punt+a+football+during+the+game+against+UTSA+Sept.+4.+The+Illini+hope+to+end+their+losing+streak+this+weekend+as+they+are+prepared+to+play+Charlotte+on+Saturday.

Ryan Ash

Kicker James McCourt begins to punt a football during the game against UTSA Sept. 4. The Illini hope to end their losing streak this weekend as they are prepared to play Charlotte on Saturday.

By Wes Hollenberg, Staff Writer

Illinois football will look to put an end to its four-game losing streak when it hosts Charlotte at Memorial Stadium this Saturday at 11 a.m.

The past month has been a rocky one for the Illini ever since their seemingly promising season-opening win over Nebraska. Since then, Illinois has seen two different starting quarterbacks who have registered little success and a defense that looked putrid for weeks before coming together over the past couple games.

“I want you to understand that it’s a step in the right direction to be disappointed that we finished close (against Purdue last week),” said head coach Bret Bielema. “I can’t accept that. I don’t want to finish close, but we’re in the battle. We’re in the competition. We’re right there knocking on the door. … But, unfortunately, we’re going to go through some learning pains.”

Charlotte is 3-1 this season but has historically struggled on the road. The 49ers are 4-19 in road games since 2017. But considering the Illini’s current struggles, it’s important to note that they are 9-17 at home over that same span.

While the Illini are likely the more talented team, Charlotte has already proven it can pull off upset wins this season with a major achievement being their week one win over Duke.

Matchup-wise, the Illini are in a decent spot, as they’ve found a knack for the run game in recent weeks, and Charlotte has a relatively weak run defense. The 49ers have allowed 234.3 rushing yards per game so far this season. The Illini will look to leverage a breakout 156-rushing-yard performance by freshman Josh McCray this week.

It’s looking likely that Chase Brown, another promising Illinois running back, will be back healthy this weekend, so it is unclear if McCray will feature as the primary back again.

Another reason Illinois might look to the run game is its openly turbulent quarterback situation. Brandon Peters was the established starter going into the season, but he got hurt early in game one and backup Artur Sitkowski played well and led the team to its only win. Sitkowski played poorly in the next two games while Peters was hurt, but Peters has played arguably even worse in the past two weeks since he’s come back from injury.

All of this has added up to a messy situation in which Bielema won’t openly commit to a quarterback for the weekend.

“I know starting quarterback is a hot topic,” Bielema said. “I think you guys understand and appreciate whatever the situation is in the Smith Center. I can’t (tell you). … I’d tell you (Peters) right after the (Purdue) game, also on Sunday when I had a conversation with him (about) where we are today, he knows he wants to get better.”

Defensively, Illinois will need to contend with a balanced Charlotte offense. Charlotte uses a running back by committee approach but favors two receivers in its passing game: Grant DuBose and Victor Tucker.

“We have a difficult challenger this week in Charlotte,” Bielema said. “Confident group. Have a lot of energy in all three phases: offense, defense and special teams. I think that’s there, but I think this game has to be made about us. As players and coaches, we really want to make this here at home in front of our crowd, in front of a student section that’s been absolutely phenomenal.”

The matchup this weekend is winnable, but if the Illini want a chance, then the first matchup they need to win is internal. During Bielema’s press conference this week, he seemed to know as much and focused his statements on the team’s inner struggles rather than the Charlotte matchup. It’s tough to believe in a team that doesn’t know its own starting quarterback, but if Illinois can find an offensive identity, the defense has recently shown an ability to keep them in games.

@WesHollenberg

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