We chatted with Austin Jabs of The Champaign Room to talk Illini football and get a sense of where the fanbase is at thus far in the season. Spoiler: it’s not pretty. Anyway, whet your Thanksgiving Day appetite with some information about Illinois:
Inside NU: The Illinois defense has been really, really bad in conference play. What has gone wrong, and can anything be changed?
Austin Jabs: What has gone wrong? Well, where should we start? The defense has been atrocious, the offense has been stagnant due to a one dimensional run game as our quarterbacks have issues completing a five yard out pass, bonehead plays, especially on special teams. There is a grab bag of issues, you can take your pick. My hope is that with this (likely) last game of the season Illinois can find a way to get a huge win and build on next season. Five wins would be a solid start to the project for 2019.
INU: Illinois’s rush attack has been awesome this year. What has made that aspect of the offense so successful, and who are some of the guys besides Reggie Corbin to take note of?
AJ: I think the success starts with new OC Rod Smith. Coming in from Arizona, many of us had high expectations for the offense, particularly in the rushing game. Boy has that paid off. Smith has built an offense that can run all over anyone in the country WHEN we don’t have to play one-dimensional. The caveat of this is that Purdue was the first team to show the Big Ten the blueprint for beating Illinois. Stack the box and force Illinois to throw, negating the strong rushing attack. Corbin is, of course, the lynch pin for the rushing attack, but you can’t overlook Ra’Von Bonner and Dre Brown. Those two have combined for over 500 yards and five touchdowns this season. AJ Bush is also able to run the ball, but probably runs far too often as he leads the Illini in carries.
INU: AJ Bush has been great running the ball but his passing efficiency isn’t too hot. What’s his skillset, and is he the guy to be helming the Illinois offense?
AJ: As alluded to earlier, Bush likes to tuck and run when he senses pressure, but far too often runs before he has to. He is probably an average QB that can run decently. I don’t really know how I would best describe his skill set other than that. I would love to see him trust his arm more, but he is clearly a better runner than passer. Frankly, that is what Illinois will need to rely on in this match up, even though Northwestern sits in the bottom half nationally in pass defense. Illinois simply can’t pass the ball effectively at this point.
INU: Who are some of the seniors on either side of the ball to look out for in their last game?
AJ: I could list every senior on the roster and not take up much space here. Del’Shawn Phillips (LB), Nick Allegretti (OL), AJ Bush (QB), and Sam Mays (WR) are the main four to keep an eye on. Phillips comes in with four interceptions on the year and has proven to be very solid in his career with Illinois. Allegretti has been the best offensive lineman I have seen at Illinois in some time and is one of the main reasons this team has one of the best running games in the country. Linemen are often underappreciated, but Nick is one of the best in the Big Ten and really in all of college football. Sadly, Mike Dudek (WR) is a senior after going through an injury plagued career at Illinois. It was a shame fans of Big Ten football did not get a chance to see more of him. His freshman season was one of the most exciting freshmen seasons for Illinois receivers, but his body just didn’t hold up.
INU: How do Illini fans feel about Lovie Smith at this point? Is his time up?
AJ: There are two factions in Illini Land right now: Fire him yesterday and give him 47 years to build a program. There is no middle ground. Both sides, much like the political landscape, are so polarized that there is no discussion, no debate, just exercises in who can scream the loudest. I fall in the former. I believe that the Lovie Smith experiment has run its course and the defensive effort shown by this team shows that a change must be made. Coming off the worst beating in program history, I expected more fans to call for a change, but the sides remain. Optimistic I hopes that a change is made before Jan. 1, when a $4 million bonus is due.
INU: How meaningful is this game to Illini fans? Is this a referendum on Smith?
AJ: Rivalry games are always important to fans. I guess this is meaningful in the fact that I would love seeing a 7-5 Northwestern play for the Big Ten title, but the apathy of this season has set in fairly heavily. Many I have talked to have no interest in watching this game, which wouldn’t be the case if Illinois was trotting out even an average defense. When the defense is as bad as it is, fans simply don’t want to spend their time on a holiday weekend shaking their heads in disgust. I think Josh Whitman, Illinois AD, will have to make a hard choice either way, but I expect a blowout loss to make that choice a bit easier on him.
INU: Who wins and why?
AJ: With a 17-point spread, I am not sure where to go on this. I don’t think Illinois get destroyed here, but I said the same thing before Iowa and we know how that game went. I guess I would have to give the win to Northwestern at 40-25, but I wouldn’t be shocked if the entire offensive side of the Northwestern roster is the Big Ten player of the week next week.