The Illinois Fighting Illini (6-5, 4-4 B1G) are finally bowl-eligible. In Lovie Smith’s fourth year, his squad managed to break through, turning some disappointing early-season results into shocking upset wins over Wisconsin and Michigan State.
Now, they will try to accomplish another goal they haven’t yet reached during Smith’s tenure: wresting the HAT away from Pat Fitzgerald and his struggling Northwestern Wildcats (2-9, 0-8). For the inside scoop on the resurgent Illini (and a, frankly, outlandish prediction), we turned to Steve Braun from The Champaign Room.
INU: Illinois football is (apparently) back! What’s the mood right now in and around Urbana-Champaign?
TCR: Bewildered excitement is probably the best way to sum it up, because remember: Illinois started off the year by housing what turned out to be an abysmal Akron team, then rallied back to hold off a miserable UConn team, lost at home to Eastern Michigan, blew a huge opportunity to beat what’s turned out to be a bad Nebraska team, went on the road and got annihilated by a Minnesota team they spanked in 2018, then trailed Michigan 28-0.
Lovie was a dead man walking. Even the Illini Inquirer, the 247 site, was publishing articles with lists of coaches who could take over in 2020. Sitting at 2-4 with no more margin for error, this team seemed headed for, at best, 4-8.
Then suddenly the Wisconsin game happened.
It’s basically been a miracle ride that we’ve been pretty sure would end at any time. The competitive loss at Iowa seemed to legitimize things.
It was the worst of times. It was the best of times. This season has been wild.
INU: The Fighting Illini have been so good at not committing and, especially, forcing turnovers this season. What has been behind that success, and how much of it is luck?
TCR: Well, on offense the Illini have generally been secure ballcarriers and most of the decisions the quarterbacks make are sound. The biggest reason for the turnover margin, however, is the nation-leading amount of turnovers Illinois has forced. They’ve recovered fumbles at a rate higher than 50%, which is statistically related to luck since 50% is about what you can expect for odds to recover any given fumble.
There is some technique to it, though; Illinois has forced by far the most fumbles of any team, and that’s a culmination of Lovie Smith spending the past 3 seasons and change emphasizing punching at the ball at every tackle like former Bears corner Charles “Peanut” Tillman. No matter where on the field they tackle the ballcarrier, they’re always trying to strip the ball. So while they’ve definitely been lucky to recover as high a PERCENTAGE of forced fumbles as they have, the raw NUMBERS are pumped up by technique. The more fumbles you force, the more you can recover.
INU: Offensively, Illinois has seemed to really orient around the running game, and, at times, the jump-ball ability of Josh Imatorbhebhe. How much can the passing game really be counted on? Are we going to see Brandon Peters, and if not, who do you think will play?
TCR: I doubt Peters will play based on the fact that he’s already missed time with a head injury this year and he seemed really shaken up by Geno Stone’s uncalled late hit to his helmet. This severely limits the upside of the passing game, and unfortunately the Illini passing game is all upside. It’s best when the passing game doesn’t need to be a big factor because it’s remarkably inefficient. Matt Robinson will probably start, but Isaiah Williams and even Coran Taylor might see action. The problem is that none of those guys have the arm or the downfield vision of Peters, so if Peters can’t go, Imatorbhebhe will be subject to the limitations of the dual-threat quarterbacks.
INU: How confident are you in the Illinois defense? What aspects of it are the easiest for opposing offenses to potentially exploit?
TCR: My confidence in the Illini defense is...shaky? They’ve mostly been okay against the run since Michigan carved them up a month ago. Jamal Milan is a force to be reckoned with in the center of the defensive line. Where Illinois has been vulnerable all year is against the pass, but strangely teams have been unable to exploit this. The linebackers and safeties struggle in zone coverage and the pass rush has been absent most of the year. Fortunately, we played Purdue in a monsoon. Iowa burned the Illini for several deep passing plays, and Eastern Michigan...ugh.
INU: Behind any shocking season like the one Illinois is having are a few surprising and/or unheralded, yet important, contributors. Who are those guys for the Fighting Illini?
TCR: Well, I already mentioned Jamal Milan, who I think is the best defensive tackle in the Big Ten. He’s had 8.5 TFLs and his presence as an immovable anchor slowed down the WIsconsin and Iowa rushing games.
Punter Blake Hayes has been an absolute monster, and the special teams unit is one of the best in the nation. Before a gruesome leg injury, walk-on punt returner Jordan Holmes was doing some incredible work. He didn’t have any spectacular returns, but didn’t fumble a single punt and showed remarkable hands fielding punts on the bounce. True freshman Devon Witherspoon has been a revelation as a rotation corner, but it’s on the kick coverage teams where he’s made a big difference. Watch for him on punt coverage as a gunner.
INU: Finally, what is your score prediction? Can Lovie and the boys bring the HAT back to Champaign?
TCR: You’re not gonna like it.
I predicted Illinois 38, Northwestern 0. Nobody on the current Illini roster has ever beaten Northwestern, and they’ve had an in-season turnaround the likes of which I’ve never seen fueling them. I think the defense in particular is going to be looking to score off turnovers and I’m probably being way too drunk on the orange Kool-Aid here, but I think Lovie can collect his second rivalry trophy this year.