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Know your Northwestern football opponent, Week 14: Illinois

Gotta love Lovie.

NCAA Football: Big Ten Media Days Jim Young-USA TODAY Sports

The final installment of our 2019 summer guide is the Know Your Opponent series. We’ll take you through Northwestern’s fall schedule week-by-week, outlining the strengths and weaknesses of each opponent and identifying some key players to look out for. The series serves as a way for us to evaluate and take stock of the team’s upcoming opponents.

Our series wraps up with the one and only Illinois Fightin’ Illini Football team. In what is shaping up to be a wide open West division, Lovie Smith’s team is pretty much the only program you can rule out for a shot at a trip to Indianapolis. Northwestern has claimed the hat in the rivalry’s past four matchups.

The Basics

Returning production: 75 percent, (Offense 70 percent, Defense 81 percent)

2018 record: (4-8, 2-7)

Coach: Lovie Smith (4th season, 9-27)

The Stats

The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly and Football Outsiders (and now ESPN!). You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.

2018 S&P+ Overall: 97th

2018 S&P+ Offense: 70th

2018 S&P+ Defense: 115th

2019 S&P+ Projection: 91st

2018 Capsule

From a pure wins/losses standpoint, last season was Illinois’ most successful year under Lovie Smith. In the coach’s third run at it with the team, Smith finally defeated a Big Ten West foe and got the program over three wins in a season for the first time since 2015.

While it may have been Smith’s best year in the win column, success is still quite relative and requires context for this lowly Illinois program. All of the Illini’s conference losses except to Northwestern came by at least three scores, and the team’s average margin of defeat in Big Ten play was an insane 32.4 points per defeat. Outside of a shock 55-31 victory at home against PJ Fleck’s Golden Gophers, it was another year to forget for that other Big Ten team from Lincoln Land.

Offensive Overview

If Illinois has any hopes of eluding its almost unanimous projection of a last place finish in the West, its offense is going to have to carry the weight. The team’s 70th ranking in 2018 Offensive S&P+ is virtually its only respectable statistical mark from what was otherwise an ugly season.

Lovie Smith and his staff are yet to name a starting quarterback, but the team has a few promising options in Michigan transfer Brandon Peters and true freshman Isaiah Williams. Peters is a tall, pro-style quarterback with a strong arm whose career never took off at Michigan despite showing glimpses of talent. Williams is a four-star athlete recruit who would offer more of a dual-threat look for the Illini. The former No. 1 ranked prospect in Missouri chose Illinois over nearly every big name FBS program.

The team returns last year’s leading rusher in Reggie Corbin, and Ra’Von Bonner and Mike Epstein will also see action on the ground. The Illini also seem to have boosted their receiving corps by adding two transfers from USC in Josh Imatorbhebhe and Trevon Sidney.

Defensive Overview

I’m not gonna pretend like I’ve watched much film of the Illinois defense, but the 2018 numbers are pretty horrendous:

  • 39.4 points per game (123rd)
  • 508.3 yards allowed per game (127th)
  • Seven games with 30+ points allowed, THREE games with 60+ surrendered

The Illini front was porous (128th stuff rate, 245.3 rYPG) in a conference where success is often contingent on stopping the run. It’s no coincidence that the worst team in the West division also has the group’s worst rush defense by far.

The unit returns 81 percent of its 2018 production, but it’s difficult to measure how that high return rate will translate to overall defensive improvement given how ineffective it was last season. Expect a lot of fresh faces and testing out young talent in what could be another challenging year for the Illini defense.

Three Players to Know

QB Isaiah Williams

Williams has all the makings of becoming the Illinois quarterback of the future. He’s the offensive jewel of Lovie Smith’s 2019 recruiting class, and any player turning down Bama and Clemson in favor of Champaign should raise some eyebrows. For now, it looks like he still has a tough battle in front of him in beating out the experience of transfer Brandon Peters for the starting spot, but the young, 5-foot-9 talent is certainly a guy to keep an eye on.

S Stanley Green

The lone senior safety of this Illinois team will be tasked with anchoring a pass defense that was absolutely shredded throughout the 2018 season. Last year’s secondary squandered over 260 yards in the air per game in addition to allowing a Big Ten worst 30 passing touchdowns on the season.

WR Ricky Smalling

Illinois’ top receiver from last season has caught over 30 passes in each of his first two seasons with the program and was on the back end of five of the team’s 10 passing touchdowns in 2018. He’ll face decent competition at the position with the addition of a few transfers, but Stanley could be in for a big year if Peters or Williams is able to give the program improved consistency at the quarterback position.