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Previewing The Enemy: Illinois Fighting Illini

We’ve got at least one more week of Nittany Lions football, folks.

After taking down Michigan State for its third consecutive win, Penn State football was scheduled to play Illinois at 5:30 p.m. Saturday at Beaver Stadium. Following a whirlwind season, the Nittany Lions now have a chance to land a bowl game with a win over the reeling Fighting Illini.

With that in mind, here’s everything you need to know about this Illinois squad.

The Team

Illinois currently holds a 2-5 record on the season and fired head coach Lovie Smith this past week. The former Chicago Bears head coach called the shots in Champaign for five seasons but led Illinois to a 17-39 overall record. The Fighting Illini also saw just one bowl appearance during those years, which came last season in a 35-20 loss to Cal at the Redbox Bowl.

The Fighting Illini opened the 2020 campaign with an ugly 45-7 loss to Wisconsin and didn’t pick up a victory until three weeks later when they took down Rutgers 23-20. Smith’s squad picked up another win over Nebraska the following week and avoided a contest against No. 4 Ohio State after that due to positive coronavirus tests on the Buckeyes’ side.

Most recently, Illinois lost 35-21 to No. 16 Iowa and fell to No. 14 Northwestern 28-10 this past week.

Offense

Illinois’ offense has struggled a bit this season. The Fighting Illini are averaging 20 points per game along with a middle of the road 359.9 yards. Other than a 41-point performance against Nebraska, the group hasn’t done a whole lot to impress this season.

As for its quarterback, Illinois has had an interesting season. Brandon Peters opened the season as the starter but was sidelined with the coronavirus, so Coran Taylor, Isaiah Williams, and Matt Robinson have all seen time.

Peters opened the season in ugly fashion against Wisconsin, as he completed just eight passes worth 87 yards. Williams also saw time in that game but finished with three incompletions and an interception.

After that, Peters missed three games and it became Williams and Taylor’s team. Taylor totaled 379 passing yards and three touchdowns in appearances against Minnesota and Purdue, but Williams broke onto the scene in a victory over Rutgers. The freshman signal-caller rushed for 192 yards against the Scarlet Knights (a program record for a quarterback) and played a key role in the team’s first win of the season.

After all of that, Peters got back in action and threw for 205 yards in a win over Nebraska, but he had serious struggles over the past two weeks against Iowa and Northwestern. With all of that quarterback drama in mind, expect to see a mix of at least Peters and Williams under center this weekend.

As for Illinois’ other playmakers, Josh Imatorbhebhe has been a consistent option at wideout. The senior has racked up 22 catches worth 297 yards and three scores, including a 71-yard performance and a touchdown in the win over the Cornhuskers. Unfortunately for the Fighting Illini, they’ll be without him this weekend after he declared for the NFL Draft this week.

Outside of Imatorbhebhe, however, there hasn’t been a whole lot of consistency in Illinois’ passing attack. Tight end Daniel Barker is second on the team with 16 catches, while wideout Casey Washington is close behind with 10.

Despite the worst passing offense in the Big Ten, the Fighting Illini have balanced that out with the second-best rushing attack in the conference. Chase Brown and Mike Epstein have led that charge at running back, as Brown has a gaudy 510 yards on the year on 93 attempts, while Epstein has 360 yards on 61 carries. The pair have also combined for six scores on the season.

Williams has also been a key factor in this piece of Illinois’ game. Along with that record-breaking performance against Rutgers, he’s got 287 rushing yards on the year and a touchdown.

Defense

While the offense does have some bright spots, Illinois’ defense has struggled to find any of that this year. The Illini are allowing a Big Ten worst 451.1 yards per game, along with 31.9 points.

The group has allowed more than 40 points on two occasions this year and has yet to hold a team below 20.

In terms of standouts for the defense, linebacker Jake Hansen is the first name that comes to mind. The senior linebacker leads the team with 59 total tackles on the year, is tied for the lead with two interceptions, and has two fumbles forced and recovered.

Hansen was dominant in the tight win over Rutgers. He finished with a season-high 15 total tackles, had a snack, and notched a massive interception.

Behind Hansen, defensive back Tony Adams has 51 total tackles, an interception, and a pass deflection. Devon Witherspoon has also stepped up in the secondary with two interceptions, while Nate Hobbs has one of his own.

However, the Illini are allowing a generous average of 224.3 yards through the air to opposing offenses. The 15 passing touchdowns scored against them is also good for second-worst in the Big Ten.

Up front, Owen Carney Jr. should be Penn State’s biggest concern. The senior defensive end leads the team by a landslide with five sacks on the year (the next most is 1.5) worth 40 yards lost. Carney also has 24 total tackles on the year and a forced fumble.

Special Teams

James McCourt and Caleb Griffin have both seen time at kicker for Illinois. The pair have hit all 17 of their extra point opportunities, while McCourt has hit six of his 10 field goal attempts. He’s responsible for 30 points on the year while Griffin, who saw time against Minnesota and Purdue, has eight on the season.

Senior Blake Hayes has handled the punting duties. He’s attempted 33 punts this year for an average of 43.7 yards and booted a season-long of 62 yards last week against Northwestern.

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About the Author

Will Pegler

Will is a senior majoring in digital and print journalism and is an associate editor for Onward State. He is from Darien, Connecticut and is a lifelong Penn State football fan. He loves a good 80's comedy movie, Peaky Blinders, The Office, and the New York Yankees and Giants. You can catch some of his ridiculous sports takes on his Twitter @gritdude and yell at him on his email [email protected]

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