CHAMPAIGN – In the first three weeks of the 2019 season, Illinois fans are just hoping for little drama and a trio of wins.
That would be the best way for Lovie Smith to give his team a chance for their first bowl appearance in his tenure, and bring some life back to the program that is in the midst of a major rebuild.
Last Saturday, the Illini started as well as they could have wanted, dominating from start to finish in a comfortable 42-3 victory over Akron at Memorial Stadium.
“So much goes into playing the opening game. There’s so much unknown, playing a new staff. We had an idea of what they would do, but we had to get to the first game,” said Smith of the win. “I thought our staff did a good job of adjusting early on.”
Unfortunately, it wasn’t without taking a loss as well.
Running back Mike Epstein suffered a season-ending knee injury during the game against Akron, the third time in which he’s lost a significant amount of a season due to injury since joining the Illini in 2017. A stress fracture was the cause of his previous exits from the lineup.
This will be the most time that he’s been out of the lineup, however, as the Illini face UConn on Saturday on the road in East Hartford.
“What Mike should see is that he has family. It’s a little bit different situation, because Mike has a lot of eligibility left. He’ll come back as strong as ever,” said Smith of Epstein. “That’s what we’ve seen. Sometimes [injuries] are a blessing in disguise that we don’t really realize, Coming back from a serious injury, maybe it’s going to give him a little more time to heal up, and we’re going to get the best version of Mike Epstein that we can.”
NORTHERN ILLINOIS: Another difficult stretch begins
DEKALB – Last season, things weren’t easy for the Huskies right out of the game.
In their first four games of the season, they had a road contest against No. 25 Iowa to start the season, then a home game against No. 17 Utah, and then after a win over Central Michigan went to Florida State.
All three of those games were losses for Northern Illinois, but they did use the experience to their benefit en route to a Mid-American Conference championship.
In 2019, this time with head coach Thomas Hammock, the Huskies have another difficult stretch to the start the season following their victory over Illinois State last week at home. First it’s off to No. 13 Utah this Saturday, then No. 25 Nebraska the following week, and then a trip to SEC opponent Vanderbilt the following week.
After that, it’s all MAC opponents the rest of the way, but the road before that will give Hammock quite a test in his first month as coach.
NORTHWESTERN AND NOTRE DAME HAVE BYE WEEKS