Washington provides first real test for Illini football


Well, this sort of feels familiar. Illinois is 2-0 and heading into its highest profile nonconference game of the season against Washington.

I say it “sort of” feels familiar because that’s where the similarities with last year’s matchup with the Huskies pretty much end. Illinois lost to the Huskies 34-24 at Soldier Field in Chicago last September, the first loss of a eight game stretch during which the team went 1-7.

But really, too much has changed since last year’s meeting between the two teams to even consider them similar.

Enter Chris Peterson, the coach who the Huskies snatched from Boise State. Peterson was rumored for as many job openings as any coach in the last seven or eight years since he jumped into the national spotlight, and I honestly didn’t know if he’d ever leave Idaho.

But he did, and now his team presents a baffling opponent for the Illini this weekend in Seattle. The Huskies narrowly avoided losing to Hawaii in their season opener in something of an ugly 17-16 game. Then last week Washington needed eight touchdowns to put away Eastern Washington 59-52 in a game that provided a few more fireworks than the Huskies’ opener.

In that high-scoring affair with Eastern Washington, the Huskies put up 356 rushing yards. Freshman running back Lavon Coleman rushed for 118 of them.

Illinois faced a run-heavy offense in Youngstown State in the season opener, but I’d expect Washington’s attack to be a little more of a threat. Despite Youngstown State’s 59 rushing attempts, the Penguins only ran for 203 yards.

A Pac-12 rushing attack will prove a little more tricky.

So that raises the question, how will the Illini react? Illinois had plenty of trouble against strong rushing attacks a year ago. Run-heavy teams such as Wisconsin and Nebraska each put up more than 300 yards on the Illini in 2013.

Keep an eye on the Illinois defensive front as you watch this game. This will be the D-line’s biggest test this season, and I’m interested to see how it performs. With the additions of Jihad Ward and DeJazz Woods, the line looks better on paper. But we have yet to really see what it can do against a quality opponent.

Washington is that quality opponent, and I think many Illinois fans share the feeling I expressed earlier in the season. We won’t really know how good this Illini squad is until they make the trip to Seattle.

This weekend we will start to get some of the answers.

Husky Stadium is supposed to be loud. Tim Beckman said the Illini have been cranking up the music a little louder than usual in practice this week. I’d anticipate at least a couple of miscommunications on the offensive end, especially from an inexperienced receiving corps.

All of that said, the Huskies haven’t looked great in their first two games. This is a winnable contest for the Illini. A win gets them to 3-0, something that doesn’t happen too often in Champaign, and puts them on the right track toward reaching a bowl game.

A loss would be an all too familiar feeling.

Sean is a senior in Media. He can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @sean_hammond.