Illini football faces biggest test at Soldier Field

The biggest game will be under the biggest lights.

The surprisingly upstart Illinois football team (2-0) will be facing its first ranked opponent of the season when the team faces off against No. 19 Washington (1-0) at Soldier Field on Saturday.

The Illini are coming off of a 45-17 victory against Cincinnati, a game in which the Illini broke the Bearcats’ back in the third quarter. A goal-line stand by the Illini defense, supplemented by a 99-yard drive the other way, turned the game from potentially 21-17 to 28-10.

Washington didn’t play in Week 2 but was more than impressive in its only contest of the season. The Huskies opened the year against then-No. 19 Boise State, and the game didn’t live up to the hype. Even though the score was just 10-3 at halftime, the Huskies offense tore up the Broncos for 28 second-half points on the way to a 38-6 victory.

The Huskies offense, led by three-year starting quarterback Keith Price, compiled 592 yards and played at a very quick tempo when it has the ball. That tempo will once again test a young Illinois secondary, whose depth is filled out by mainly freshmen and sophomores.

“Everyone is going to have to have a role,” defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. “Especially up front, if those guys get tired, there goes our pass rush.”

Defensively, the Huskies held down a traditionally explosive Boise State offense, holding the Broncos to just 3.8 yards per pass and only 175 passing yards. Despite this, offensive coordinator Bill Cubit says his own personnel should be able to match up.

“Our kids are really smart guys,” he said. “It reminds me of when I was at Stanford, and we could do a lot of different things with kids and they can understand what we’re trying to get done in a small period of time.”

One aspect of the offense Cubit might still be looking to get in rhythm is the running game. The team racked up 210 yards rushing against Cincinnati, but starting running back Donovonn Young is averaging just 3.2 yards per carry this season, including a game against Southern Illinois in which he netted just six yards. New this week on the depth chart was adding Josh Ferguson to the starting lineup at running back, as he and Young are both listed as starters.

Ferguson has had a solid year, averaging 5.3 yards per carry but also has been a major asset in the passing game with 158 receiving yards through two games.

“We know we have to prepare even harder this week,” head coach Tim Beckman said. “Not everyone gets to do this … to play a game in Chicago at Soldier Field. It’s the experience that college football gives a young man.”

Stephen can be reached at [email protected] and @steve_bourbon.