The annual "money game" is the season opener this year for Youngstown State as it travels to Illinois to face a high-powered Illini offense.
The Penguins are bringing in approximately $560,000 dollars just for playing Illinois, and the players say they "expect"?to bring home a win as well. YSU's lone victory over a FBS school since it started "money games"?in 2005 was a 31-17 victory over Pittsburgh in 2012. The Penguins haven't been close since.
If they're going to change that, the defense must find a way to slow an Illinois team that averaged more than 31 points per game in 2013. YSU's offense, which is ushering in a new quarterback, will in turn have a chance to find some holes in what was a struggling Illini defense a year ago.
YSU -The career of Dante Nania unofficially kicks off today, as the dual-threat quarterback starts his first game as a Penguin. He'll do so in front of 60,000 people, so his poise will be tested. It's his arm that must pass the test though. He possesses great athleticism and is fairly accurate, but his arm strength has been questioned.
UI - Oklahoma State-transfer Wes Lunt makes his Illinois debut after sitting out last season because of transfer rules. He started five games for the Cowboys in 2012 before an injury resulted in him losing the job. The 6-foot-5, 225-pound Lunt connected on 81 of 131 passes for 1,108 yards, six touchdowns and seven interceptions for OSU in 2012. He takes over for record-setting UI quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase.
EDGE - UI
YSU - This is probably YSU's strongest position. Martin Ruiz is entrenched as the starter. He ran for a school freshman record 1,094 yards and 15 touchdowns last season. He combines a downhill style and good vision with solid speed and average open-field moves. Fellow sophomore Jody Webb provides great quickness and agility and is a major threat out of the backfield. Demond Hymes is similar to Ruiz with more of a bruising style, and true freshman Ryan Moore is a power back who can break tackles.
UI - Josh Ferguson is arguably the Illini's biggest offensive weapon. He's good out of the backfield, rushing for 779 yards and seven touchdowns on 141 carries, he also was Illinois' second-leading receiver with 50 catches for 535 yards and four touchdowns last year. He will likely be the focus of YSU's defense.
EDGE - Even
YSU - Receiver is the most experienced area for the Penguins. Jelani Berassa (6-4, 210) is a sixth-year senior who had two major knee injuries during his career, but he appears fully recovered. Slot receiver Andre Stubbs, the leading receiver for YSU, is quick, shifty and has good hands. Christian Bryan is probably the most sure-handed receiver on the team, and Andrew Williams (6-4, 190) is probably the fastest of the bunch.
UI - The Illini lost its stop three receivers, and while senior Martize Barr caught 26 passes for 246 yards and one touchdown, this group appears a bit thin. The addition of Geronimo Allison, a 6-4, 195-pound junior-college transfer, adds size and potential (he was one of the highest-rated JUCO players in the country). Justin Hardee (6-1, 195), a Cleveland Glenville native, played in all 12 games, but he and Barr combined for three total starts.
EDGE - YSU
YSU - The Penguins are very young up front, but YSU coach Eric Wolford sounds confident in their abilities. The only returning starters are 6-7, 300-pound left tackle Trevor Strickland, a junior who moved from right tackle, and sophomore right guard Brock Eisenhuth. Newton Falls graduate Stephen Page, a center, is the lone senior, but he didn't play much in his first three years. Right tackle Justin Spencer is a redshirt freshman, and left guard Dylan Colucci is a sophomore.
UI - Four starters return up front for Illinois, which ranked ninth out of 12 teams in the Big Ten last year by allowing 30 sacks. Three of the five starters are seniors. Their average measurements are 6-5 and 310 pounds, and that type of size could wear down the Penguins.
EDGE - UI
YSU - The D-line has not been a strength for YSU in the past few years, but they're healthy for the first time in a while, so the hope is that will change. It will take an unproven group to create that turnaround. Desmond and Terrell Williams (no relation) start at the defensive end spots. Terrell started all 12 games last year, but it was hard to tell because he had just one sack. Desmond played in 11 and had six tackles. Octavius Brown (6-0, 300) and Emmanuel Kromah (6-2, 280) are solid players inside, but they could be overmatched against a much bigger offensive line.
UI - One of three starters return in the Illini's 3-4 front. Tackle Austin Teitsma made 53 tackles and the senior is one of the leaders for Illinois. He's joined by end Kenny Nelson (6-6, 250) and nose tackle Teko Powell (6-3, 305), who started the final six games of 2013. Their main goal is to help stop the run and free up the linebackers.
EDGE - UI
YSU - The Penguins lost leading tackler Teven Williams, who was kicked off the team for an undisclosed reason in March. Travis Williams, a returning starter, is listed as second on the depth to freshman Mike Palumbo. That could mean he's injured, or that he's suddenly in Wolford's doghouse. Either way, the Penguins don't appear to possess a game-breaking star at linebacker - or anywhere else on the defense - so they're looking for someone to step up. Middle linebacker Jaylin Kelly and weak-side linebacker Dubem Nwadiogbu totaled 13 tackles last year.
UI - Weak-side linebacker Mason Monheim is on the Butkus Award watch list (given to the top linebacker in the country) for the Illini. The Orrville, Ohio native made 97 tackles (6.5 for loss) in 2013. Earnest Thomas (6-2, 210) plays Star linebacker, which is a hybrid defensive back/linebacker. He was Illinois' second leading tackler and is one of their top playmakers.
EDGE - UI
YSU - Senior captain Julius Childs, a 6-foot, 180-pound corner, is a two-year starter. He did struggle at times last year in coverage, but he's a sure tackler and a veteran leader on defense. It's a bit surprising that Kenneth Durden, a South Florida transfer, didn't win the job opposite Childs. He's been exceptional in camp and boasts good size and speed along with great ball skills. Free safety Donald D'Alesio, another senior captain, and strong safety Jameel Smith round out what should be the strength of YSU's defense. Both are solid in coverage and as tacklers.
UI - V'Angelo Bentley, another Glenville native, is probably the best all-around player for Illinois. He is most dangerous returning kicks, but he's an above-average corner too. The 5-10, 190-pound junior was named to the Paul Hornung Award watch list (given to the best all-purpose player in the country). Eaton Spence is a returning starter opposite of him, but that's not saying much considering the Illini allowed 35.4 points per game last season. Strong safety Zane Petty (6-1, 205) and FS Taylor Barton (6-1, 215) were spot starters a year ago.
EDGE - UI
YSU - Joey Cejudo returns as place kicker, and he was solid last year, making 6 of 8 field goals with a long of 40 yards. Cejudo will take on the added duty of punting this year, and he's looked good in spring practice. Even though Stubbs is a returning all-conference performer as a kick returner, running backs Sidney Sandidge (6-2, 205) and Webb are taking over. Bryan, a receiver, returns punts.
UI - As mentioned, Bentley is dynamite returning kicks, as he led the Big Ten in punt return yardage at 15.8. He's the only player in UI history with a kick return and a punt return for a TD in the same season. Place kicker Taylor Zalewski made 12 of 17 field goals last year, with a long of 54 yards. Punter Justin DuVernois averaged 40.6 yards per punt, which was sixth best in the Big Ten.
An upset is not out of the realm of possibility, but it's unlikely. No one is going to confuse Illinois for the Michigan State team YSU faced last year, which finished ranked No. 3 in the nation. The Illini have a mediocre defense, but their offense could pose problems for a shaky Penguins 'D.' The big question is how Nania plays. He has thrown 20 career passes and the only time he saw key minutes (last year against North Dakota State) he got hurt. He needs to manage the game and make a few big plays. While Illinois lost a lot of players at receiver, it's still a dangerous offense, so YSU is going to need to keep up.