Illinois (2-0) at Washington (2-0)
1 p.m. Saturday, Husky Stadium
The line: Washington by 13.5
Radio: 1000 AM/97.7 FM
It's only natural to look at the passing totals Eastern Washington compiled against the Huskies last week and wonder if, with a pass-heavy Illinois team coming to town this week, the young UW secondary might be in for another tough day.
The answer is: maybe. But here's a guess that Illinois isn't as good as Eastern Washington, even if sophomore quarterback Wes Lunt is off to a strong start and is coming off a game in which he threw for 456 yards in a victory over Western Kentucky.
Western Kentucky won eight games in 2013. But its defensive coordinator is also Nick Holt. Just sayin'.
Lunt will complete his passes, for sure -- especially because Illinois has run the ball only 57 times in two games -- and so I think it would be unwise to think the Huskies will run away with this one. The absence of Marcus Peters won't help, either, as Washington will be left with youth and inexperience at every position in the defensive backfield. Defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake emphasized this week that he didn't think his players' coverage was necessarily terrible on every one of Vernon Adams' completions last week -- the dime he dropped right in front of freshman Sidney Jones for a touchdown to Cory Mitchell comes to mind -- but that they need to do a better job of making a play on the ball when they put themselves in good position. He counted four dropped interceptions against EWU. Those kind of opportunities have to be converted to avoid another lopsided scoring total for the opponent this week.
Here's what coach Chris Petersen said this week about Lunt, a transfer from Oklahoma State: "I think he’s a good player. He was a good player in high school and he’s a really good player now. I think when it’s all said and done, he’ll be one of the top quarterbacks in college football. I think he’s a sophomore, he’s got a lot of football ahead of him, and the way he can throw it, his arm strength and all those things, he looks really good.”
Offensively, this could be another big game for the Huskies' rushing attack, which did more or less as it pleased last week in piling up 356 yards rushing against Eastern. Illinois might have better athletes on that side of the ball, and Petersen and others this week have touted the Illini's experience -- they return eight defensive starters. But Illinois was one of the worst defensive teams in the country in 2013, ranking 110th nationally in total defense, 116th in rushing defense and 104th in scoring defense.
Their defensive numbers have been average so far through two games against so-so opposition (72nd in total defense, 74th in rushing defense). You'll recall that Bishop Sankey rushed for 208 yards on 35 carries against Illinois in Chicago last season. And while the Huskies no longer have Sankey, they do have what appears to be a steady rushing attack led by redshirt freshman Lavon Coleman and quarterback Cyler Miles, and I have to think this could be another game in which the Huskies' offense takes a step forward. As a point of reference, WKU running back Leon Allen rushed for 118 yards on 24 carries last week. Hard to believe the Huskies, with their veteran offensive line, won't be able to run the ball at least as effectively, if not more so.
So, yes, be concerned about the defensive backfield. Be concerned about them until they prove you shouldn't be. But keep in mind, too, that Lunt isn't nearly as mobile as Adams, which means that in theory, he provides an easier target for UW pass-rushers like Danny Shelton (who leads the country with six sacks) and Hau'oli Kikaha. And after watching the Huskies' running game get going against Eastern Washington last week, it just seems like if there's one thing UW should be expected to do right, it's that. If the passing game improves in Miles' second start, that should be all the Huskies need to improve to 3-0.
So while this might not be the blowout some thought it to be prior to the season, I still see this as a Huskies victory.
The pick: Washington 45, Illinois 35.
Christian Caple can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @ChristianCaple