Previewing The Enemy: Illinois Fighting Illini
Head coach Lovie Smith is entering his third year at the helm of the Illinois football program. His teams have won a grand total of five games in his first two seasons with the team — the Illini failed to win a single Big Ten game in 2017.
Last season, the Fighting Illini started things off with wins against Ball State and Western Kentucky before losing ten straight. During that streak of losses, Illinois was blown out by at least 19 points on seven occasions.
Lovie Smith is at least recruiting more successfully than some of his Big Ten counterparts. Illinois’ 2017 recruiting class ranked tenth in the Big Ten ahead of Northwestern, Minnesota, Indiana, and Purdue. Although that may not make an immediate difference, the Illini should improve in the comparatively-weaker Big Ten West in seasons to come.
But we’re not there yet.
Illinois kicked off its season with a matchup against Kent State in Champaign. Woody Barrett had himself an afternoon for the Golden Flashes, going 28-for-41 through the air with two touchdowns. He also added 117 yards and another score on the ground.
Kent State led 17-3 as late as the third quarter, but momentum shifted in Illinois’ favor after Barrett threw an interception with about ten minutes remaining in the quarter. Lovie Smith’s offense would get it done in the rushing game behind quarterback AJ Bush’s 139-yard performance and touchdowns from Reggie Corbin, Mike Epstein, and Ra’Von Bonner to complete the comeback. The Illini walked away with a 31-24 win.
Illinois took down the Western Illinois Leathernecks 34-14 in week two, but starting quarterback AJ Bush had to be replaced due to a leg injury he suffered in the first quarter. Backup MJ Rivers II carried the load under center for Illinois in that win as well as the 25-19 loss to USF.
There’s no official word regarding AJ Bush’s health going into the matchup on Friday.
New offensive coordinator Rod Smith came in from Arizona and has instituted an offense built on running the ball.
It starts with the quarterback for the Illini. AJ Bush established himself as a threat in the ground game with his 139-yard performance against Kent State, but he may not be available come Friday. MJ Rivers II rushed nine times for 36 yards against Western Illinois, and for -12 yards on 11 carries against USF. Bush certainly brings something special to the team in the running game that Rivers II lacks.
Out of the backfield, sophomore Mike Epstein and junior Reggie Corbin have basically split carries, taking 35 and 37 handoffs, respectively. Epstein has seen his share of snaps increase over the course of the first three games of the season and is averaging 7.2 yards per carry.
Illinois relies much less heavily on its receivers. The position group has just two touchdowns on the season, compared to six touchdowns among rushers. Ricky Smalling, a 6’1″ sophomore from Chicago, and Sam Mays, a 6’3″ senior from Texas, lead this receiving corps. Smalling has seven receptions for 110 yards on the season, and Mays has tallied nine receptions for 102 yards. Daniel Barker, Lovie Smith’s freshman tight end, leads his position with four catches for 30 yards in 2018.
The offensive line looked shaky against USF, giving up five sacks and eleven tackles for loss. Smith started four freshmen on the line in 2017 and they’ve all returned for their sophomore seasons, but there’s still some room for improvement if that game at Soldier Field is anything to go by.
The defense has given up 21 points per contest so far this year, but that doesn’t say a whole lot given the competition it’s faced. That 21-point clip is good enough for 47th in the FBS, but falls to 115th in total defense. The Illini have given up 480 yards per game, including 325.3 yards through the air.
Sophomore Jake Hansen leads the defensive unit from the linebacker position. Hansen has racked up 26 total tackles through three games, including six tackles for loss. Fellow linebacker Del’Shawn Phillips is the other difference-maker among the linebacking corps, having tallied 24 total tackles and two interceptions in 2018.
Junior corner Cameron Watkins has been among the most effective corners for Lovie Smith with 20 tackles. Freshman Jartavius Martin has two interceptions already, making him one of two true freshmen with multiple picks through the first three weeks of this season. At safety, Stanley Green sits at No. 4 on the team in tackles with 13 and anchors the top of the unit.
Defensive linemen Bobby Roundtree, Jamal Woods, and Isaiah Gay have all recorded one sack this season. In the past, Illinois’ defense has been able to minimize big plays, but it’s come at the cost of disruption — the Illini have just five sacks on the season. Penn State had seven sacks against Kent State alone.
It’s unlikely that the Illinois defense can handle the firepower of Trace McSorley, Miles Sanders, and a receivers group that seems to be improving each week.
You can catch the game under Friday night lights at 9 p.m. September 21. The game will be broadcast on FS1.
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