Illini Football To Play Ball State To Start Second Year Under Lovie

Illini wide receiver Mike Dudek.

University of Illinois wide receiver Mike Dudek, during an August training session.

Fighting Illini Athletics

Lovie Smith's second Illini football team kicks off the season Saturday against the Ball State Cardinals from Muncie, Indiana and the Mid-American Conference.

Illini Defensive Coordinator Hardy NIckerson says Ball State is led by running back James Gilbert. Nickerson says he’s a good fit for the Cardinals’ running game.

“They want to run the football”, said Nickerson of Ball State’s strategy. About Gilbert, Nickerson said, “they’ve got a great (running) back coming back, a kid that was All-Conference last  year, and led the conference in rushing touchdowns last year.”

Not much is known about the Cardinals defense, according to Illinois Offensive Coordinator Garrick McGee. Like Lovie Smith at Illinois, Ball State head football coach Mike Neu is just starting his second year. And it’s the first year for Defensive Coordinator David Elson, who spent last season at Western Illinois.

“We don’t have any video of him (Elson) as a defensive coordinator at Ball State”, said Garrick. “So you’re studying Western Illinois video, trying to predict, forecast what’s going to happen when we get out there. Studying the personnel from Ball State, they’ve got two corners that they really like, that played well for them last year. They have a pass rusher --- the right defensive end but the left side of the offense -- who’s one of the top pass rushers in that conference.

But McGee adds that all three linebackers are gone, as well as three defensive linemen, from last year's Ball State team that finished 1-and-7 in the MAC.

If that suggests the Illini will focus on running up the middle, that's just fine with starting tailback Kendrick Foster.

“It’s like my bread and butter”, said Foster of the tactic. “It’s my strength, running between the tackles. And that’s in my arsenal. This offensive line has gotten incredibly better this off-season. We’ve gotten stronger across the board, so I’m excited.”

When the Illini pass the ball, all eyes will be on receiver Mikey Dudek, who returns to action after missing two straight seasons due to injury.

Quarterback Chayce Crouch says Dudek deserves the attention.

“It’s been a long time coming for him”, said Crouch of Dudek’s return. “He’s had a rough time. And I really think every bit of attention, any accolade, any plays he makes on the field, I think it’s well deserved. As a football team, we’re going to do our best to put him into positions to make those plays, because it’s stripped from him the last couple of years, and we know how talented he is."

Kick-off is 11 a.m. Saturday at Memorial Stadium on the U of I campus in Champaign.

Story source: WILL