Sitting alone at the top of the Conference USA east side, the Charlotte 49ers football team face what will arguably be considered their toughest test yet. Although Illinois comes into this game with a 1-4 record, this is not indicative of how good this team can be. So, without further ado, let's scout both the 49ers and the Fighting Illini.
Scouting the Fighting Illini
Three words describe this team; Big Ten Football. The conference is known for top-tier football and top-tier athletes. Even though they are 1-4, Illinois is no exception. They have a lot of big guys on the defensive line that 49er Head Coach Will Healy thinks are very good players.
"Their interior defensive lineman is really good players," said Healy in the team's mid-week press conference. "I don't see a whole lot of weaknesses for them defensively."
The Fighting Illini also attacks opponents in the run game. This team was third in yards last season in the Big Ten, and so far, Charlotte has not had an easy time defending the run. Leading the rushing attack is Josh McCray. Only a freshman, McCray had his best game of the season last game against Purdue going for over 150 yards on the ground. He will be someone to look out for on Illinois' offense.
Scouting the 49ers
Which offense will show up is the primary question. This is an offense that is explosive enough when in synch to put up a lot of points. However, as they showed against Georgia State, they can also put up very few points. It will be about how much energy they have.
It will take a total team effort if they want to come back to the Queen City boasting a 4-1 record, but it is not unobtainable by no means. With a leader like Chris Reynolds at the helm of the 49er offense, they are capable of scoring on anyone, and wide receiver Victor Tucker resembled these remarks.
"If everybody plays within themselves at the level they are capable of, we definitely can play with anybody," said Tucker.
Players to watch
Illinois - Run Game
Josh McCray will pose a big threat for the 49ers if he gets going early. He is a very big, strong, and physical running back that can move the ball down the field quickly. He will not be stopped easily because he has 265 yards rushing on just 44 attempts this season.
Every single offensive lineman on Illinois' roster is listed over 300 pounds. They are big and physical and will look to pave the way for McCray to have a big day on the ground. The 49er defensive lineman will be busy in the trenches all game long.
Charlotte - Wide Receiver Play
This is an area where Charlotte is very deep. Yes, Victor Tucker is still the main guy, and yes, he is still the leader in that room. However, Grant DuBose's addition to the roster opens up a lot more for the 49er air threat.
DuBose and guys like Cameron Dollar, Elijah Spencer and Tre' Goode can all step up and make a play when called on. This has allowed Tucker to see a lot fewer double teams and get open a lot more so far this season.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is simple: How well can Charlotte stop the running threat of Illinois will be the question of the game? The 49ers have not proven that they can stop the run to this point in the season, but things can change very quickly in football. So, it will come down to slowing their offense down and cashing in on their offensive opportunities.
Keys on Defense
- Stop the run. This is self-explanatory at this point. They will have to do this if they want to leave Champaign victorious.
- Don't be fooled by the Fighting Illini's play-action pass game. They love to throw some play-action plays in the mix to switch things up. The 49ers have to be ready for this.
- Utilize their speed. The linebacker core for the 49ers has the speed advantage on the big lineman of Illinois, so exploit that advantage.
Keys on Offense
- If a pass falls incomplete, do not abandon the passing game. As Healy mentioned, this team is big upfront on their defense, and it will not be an easy task to run on them. So, do not abandon the passing game.
- Have confidence. It may sound cliche, but it isn't. The 49ers have beaten a power five team already, so why not do it again. It can be done. They have proven they can score a lot of points on a power five team as well.
- Share the load in the running back room. This will be a physical game, no doubt. So the use of multiple backs like they have been using all season could be the best way to attack Illinois. This way, there are always a fresh set of legs ready to run the ball.
Looking to Gameday
Gametime is set for 12 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 2, on the Big Ten Network.