With the Most Important Players and Position Previews sections of our Summer Guide having wrapped up, we now move on to our Know Your Opponent series, in which we preview every team Northwestern will face this season. When we hit game week, we will have more in-depth and comprehensive coverage, but for now we give you a general overview of the team so you know what to expect.
Next up, we have Illinois.
Returning Starters: 12 (six offensive, six defensive)
Returning Experience: 51%
2016 Record: 3-9 (2-7 Big Ten)
Coach: Lovie Smith (second year, 3-9 overall, 2-7 B1G)
The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly of SB Nation and Football Outsiders. You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.
2016 S&P+ Overall: 95th
2016 S&P+ Offense: 114th
2016 S&P+ Defense: 59th
2017 S&P+ Projection: 85th
Illinois had a disappointing year in 2016, to say the least. After firing Bill Cubit and bringing in former Bears and Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith, Illinois fans were probably not expecting a major resurgence in Year One. However, after going 3-9 and having one of the worst offenses in the country, it’s clear now that the Illinois rebuilding process is going to be painful in the short-term.
The year started with a 52-3 demolition of FCS Murray State, but North Carolina came to Champaign in Week 2 left with an easy 48-23 victory. Illinois’ main trend in 2016 was blowout losses to good football teams. P.J. Fleck’s Western Michigan squad destroyed Illinois 34-10, again in Memorial Stadium. Then Illinois lost its first Big Ten conference game to No. 16 Nebraska by double digits.
The season somehow got worse after that. Illinois handed Darrell Hazell the final victory of his Purdue career, losing 34-31 in overtime. Illinois missed a field goal to win the game after a legendary triple-icing from Hazell and then fumbled away the opening drive of overtime. At least Illinois got to play Rutgers the next week, leaving Piscataway with a dominant 24-7 win.
Illinois followed up its second win of the season by getting outscored 81-25 by Michigan and Minnesota. The 40-17 home loss to Minnesota was the nadir of Illinois’ fortunes, but Lovie Smith managed to turn the ship around long enough to notch a semi-impressive 31-27 win over an equally abysmal Michigan State team.
However, the progress was short-lived. Illinois proceeded to score three points in their next two games against Wisconsin and Iowa, losing 48-3 and 28-0, respectively. In the final game of the season, Illinois traveled to Ryan Field and kept the game close in the first half, only to lose 42-21 as Fighting Illini defense collapsed in the second half.
“In all, 42 percent of Illinois’ offensive possessions ended within three plays for a non-scoring reason (namely, punts or turnovers). Only three offenses did worse: Kent State, Boston College, and Rutgers,” Bill Connelly wrote in his profile.
That’s bad. Illinois technically had an offense last year, but the unit was tied down by bad quarterback play. The final year of the Wes Lunt era was cut short by injury, but he also wasn’t very good when he did play, posting the lowest completion percentage of his career. Replacement quarterback Chayce Crouch was decent in relief, but he suffered an AC join separation and missed most of the season. Then, Illinois brought in Jeff George Jr., who posted a brilliant 1.7 QBR in his first game. George Jr. managed to lead Illinois to a win over Michigan State, but he threw 4 interceptions against Wisconsin in his final game of the season. He also had 5 completions.
Heading into 2017, Illinois’ quarterback situation is still not optimal. Chayce Crouch and Jeff George Jr. are back, but Crouch is the better of the two options and will start in Week 1. Illinois was hoping to bring in former Virginia Tech quarterback Dwayne Lawson, but he couldn’t get the grades in junior college to enroll in fall. Thus, Illinois is stuck with what is has. Crouch is undoubtedly the better option, but he’ll need to stay healthy for Illinois to have any chance. Crouch can run and pass, and I think The Champaign Room put it best by calling him a “diet-diet-diet Tim Tebow.”
But the problems stretch beyond the quarterback position. Illinois’ offensive line finished 102nd in offensive line yards, and there’s little relief in that department. Running backs Kendrick Foster and Reggie Corbin are both very talented, but the rushing attack still struggled last season due to Illinois’ lack of quarterback competency. Foster and Corbin should bring plenty of individual talent to the field next year, but the offense around them is bad.
At wide receiver, Illinois will be bolstered by the return of talented wide receiver Mike Dudek, who caught 76 passes in 2014. At Media Days, Lovie Smith said Dudek is totally healthy, but we shall see how much he produces in 2017. Malik Turner and Carmoni Green are also good players, but they desperately need a quarterback who can get them the ball.
Also, I didn’t know where to put this, but Illinois has a really difficult schedule in 2017. CBS Sports ranked it as the fourth-hardest schedule in the country. Although Illinois plays Rutgers and Purdue, the Illini have to travel to Ohio State, South Florida, Minnesota and Iowa this season. They also have to face a Western Kentucky team that went 11-3 last year, Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Northwestern. There aren’t many easy defenses for Illinois this season, and there’s a good chance Illinois will only be playing for pride by the time Week 13 rolls around.
Last year, Illinois defense had a good pass rush that were counteracted by poor play at the second level. For example, despite losing 42-21, Illinois managed to sack Clayton Thorson five times and limited Northwestern to just 121 yards through the air. However, Illinois’ run defense proved incapable of stopping Justin Jackson and John Moten, and the defense eventually wore down because of the offense’s inability to extend drive.
Illinois ended the year 59th in defensive S&P, which is good, but they are losing a good portion of what made that defense good due to graduation. Star defensive end Dawuane Smoot is now on the Jacksonville Jaguars, and the Illini are also losing Carroll, Phillips, Gimel President, Chunky Clements and Rob Bain. The upcoming crop of defensive linemen should be able to take their place, however. Guys like Jamal Milan, Kenyon Jackson, and Tito Odenigbo (yes, that’s Ifeadi’s brother) should be able to take a step forward, if not totally replacing the Smoot Crew from last year. Lovie Smith’s first recruiting class also features a few high three-star defensive line prospects.
Behind the front lines, Illinois will have to hope its linebacker corps and safeties will improve. After the departure of Clayton Fejedelem to the NFL, Illinois played Patrick Nelson and Stanley Green, two first-year safeties. During his career, Fejedelem always had to make huge numbers of tackles in the second level due to a lack of talent at linebacker. Entrusting that task to two freshmen did not go very well last season. Illinois was very good at forcing teams into making long conversions on second and third down, but were abysmal at stopping the long passing plays that came out of those situations.
Illinois desperately needs its linebackers be better next year. Tre Watson and Julian Jones are back, and Watson in particular showed flashes of being a solid Big Ten linebacker last season. They will be joined by JuCo transfer Del’Shawn Phillips, who should provide much-needed depth and skill at the position.
Three Players to Watch
RB Kendrick Foster
The senior running back showed off serious talent in a 146-yard, 2-TD performance against Michigan State last season. After averaging 5.7 yards in an awful offense last season, Foster should benefit from a full season of Crouch. He has the potential to be Illinois’ most dangerous offensive playmaker.
WR Malik Turner
Turner made 48 catches for 712 yards and 6 touchdowns last season, despite his quarterbacks regularly having days in which they completed fewer than 10 passes. Much of that damage was done against Northwestern, where he tallied 11 cataches for 164 yards and 2 touchdowns. Turner should complement Mike Dudek well, and they both should have a decent quarterback for most of the year. He also wore a nice suit at Media Days.
LB Tre Watson
Watson is the wildcard of the Illinois defense. In 2016, he got ejected for targeting against Michigan, and then came back from suspension to deliver 16 tackles against Michigan State. At his best, Watson can be Illinois’ version of Anthony Walker, a versatile linebacker who can do almost everything (they’re also both from Florida). Illinois will need him to anchor the defense in 2017.