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.
The Fighting Illini will come to Evanston to wrap up the 2018 regular season. The “rivalry” game has lost some of its allure in recent years, but the game will always be meaningful in the eyes of ‘Cats fans.
Returning Production: 63 percent (64 percent on offense, 62 percent on defense)
2017 Record: 2-10 (0-9 Big Ten)
Head Coach: Lovie Smith (Entering third season, 5-19, 2-16 Big Ten)
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.
2017 S&P+ Overall: 118th
2017 S&P+ Offense: 124th
2017 S&P+ Defense: 89th
2018 S&P+ Projection: 99th
Illinois really struggled last year. Starting off the year aiming to improve on their 3-9 finish the previous year, they somehow moved backwards. The Illini actually won their first two games against Group of Five teams, inciting a small fraction of hope in Champaign. But after those two weeks, the season took a turn for the worse.
Going into Week Three, the Illini were tasked with a tough matchup against a solid USF team. After keeping it close in the beginning of the game, USF outclassed Illinois, running out to a 28-point lead going into the fourth quarter. A similar pattern ensued in the following weeks, as Illinois was able to keep games against Nebraska and Iowa close at the start, before being dominated the rest of the game.
When Illinois dropped their next game against Rutgers, it was certain that they were truly one of the worst teams in the country. Three of their last five games featured losses by less than 20 points, but when that can be considered a good thing, it’s indicative of the state of the program. Blowout losses to Ohio State and Northwestern capped off the season. I’m sure none of you forgot the latter.
On the bright side, special teams turned out to be consistently solid for Illinois. Blake Hayes averaged 42 yards per punt, good for 41st in the country. Chase Mclaughlin converted on every extra point, and knocked through 12 of 17 field goals, a respectable number. Statistically, this was just about the only bright spot the Illini had on the season.
Offensively, 2017 was a grind for Illinois. The team scored slightly over 15 points a game, good for 125th out of 130 teams. Three quarterbacks shared significant game time in 2017, combining for eight touchdowns and 19 interceptions, completing a combined 47.9% of their passes. Yikes.
The rushing attack was similarly weak, earning 3.3 yards per carry among 11 eligible rushers. A strong offensive line led by Nick Allegretti will help with continuity and leadership, but in terms of skill positions, Illinois has little depth.
Illinois lost their starting QB in Jeff George Jr., who transferred to Michigan. That leaves Cam Thomas as the likely starting QB. Thomas completed 42.4% of his passes in 2017, throwing zero touchdowns and five interceptions. Grad transfer A.J. Bush is likely to be the only competition to Thomas for the position.
The rushing game offers a bit more promise than the passing game. Illinois returns four running backs, Mike Epstein, Ra’Von Bonner, Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown. Although the quartet of backs didn’t combine for much in 2017, Lovie Smith hired a new offensive coordinator, Rod Smith, who runs an offense that is more designed to create space throughout the field, and hopefully create more room for the tailbacks.
Defensively in 2017, the Illini didn’t do much better. Giving up 418 yards a game, defense was consistently a liability. The team gave up more than 20 points in every single game except for a 20-7 win over Western Kentucky.
Bennett Williams and Stanley Green are two menacing defensive backs that can spark some life into the Illinois secondary. Williams led the team in interceptions last year, and Green had 70 tackles, three forced fumbles, and a pick. The pair is tasked with leading an Illinois secondary that has solid depth heading into camp.
The linebacking core will be focused around senior Del’shawn Phillips as well as Jake Hansen and Dele Harding. Hansen lost the previous year to a torn ACL, but has solid speed. Harding accrued 32 tackles last year, mainly on special teams, but looks to slot into a role in the defense this year.
Up front, Bobby Roundtree and Tymir Oliver will anchor the defensive line. Both were solid contributors in 2017 and with Tito Odenigbo leaving the team, the two will be tasked with an even bigger role. Roundtree is an exceptional player and was the main contributor on the defensive line last year. If he can continue to improve, offensive lines will have to allocate a lot of their resources towards Roundtree in an effort to keep him contained. This could open up some space for players like Oliver, and even players like Jamal Milan and Jamal Woods that showed some promise last year for the Illini.
Three Players to Know
OL Nick Allegretti
Allegretti is the best player in the Illinois offense. At a non-skill position, it’s easy to forgot about him, but his contributions to the team at center or guard will not go unnoticed this year. As an All-Big Ten honorable mention, Allegretti is one of the best linemen in the league, and was named to multiple watch lists this preseason. Illinois will need the veteran to lead a young offensive line well to have success this season.
DL Bobby Roundtree
Roundtree is an explosive player that will look to build upon a very efficient 2017 season. Like the rest of the team, Roundtree started the season strong, with three sacks in the first two games, before slowing down and earning only one more on the season. However, Roundtree is a very capable lineman with great size. If he can improve his pass rushing skills, he could become a significant force this year.
WR Mike Dudek
Dudek has really struggled with injuries since first playing for Illinois in 2014. In that season, Dudek collected over 1,000 yards in addition to six touchdowns. Since that season, Dudek has been plagued by a multitude of injuries and hasn’t been able to showcase the ability that he has. He had a few appearances last year, and did well in the time that he had, but when he was playing, he was never at 100 percent. If he can stay healthy this year, it’ll be really interesting to see what kind of production he can create with a revamped offense.