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Know your 2020 Northwestern football opponent, Week 8: Illinois

To close out the regular season, Northwestern will welcome Lovie Smith and the Fighting Illini to Evanston.

Courtesy of Athlon Sports

The Basics

Returning Production: 78 percent (Offense 86 percent, Defense 71 percent)

2019 Record: 6-7 (4-5 B1G)

Coach: Lovie Smith

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.

2019 S&P+ Overall: 61st

2019 S&P+ Offense: 92nd

2019 S&P+ Defense: 54th

2019 Capsule

Illinois came out strong in their first two nonconference games, flattening Akron in a convincing 42-3 win with dominating performances on both sides of the ball and then beating out a struggling UConn program 31-23. In their final nonconference game, junior QB Brandon Peter’s near-300 passing yards came up short as the Illini fell 34-31 on an Eastern Michigan field goal as time expired.

In their first Big Ten game of the year, the Illini took a two-possession lead over Nebraska in the second half before collapsing in the fourth quarter due to an impressive Husker passing performance. Illinois ultimately fell 42-38 in the matchup. With confidence starting to falter, the Illini played a strong Minnesota team and gave up 332 yards on the ground, losing again by a mark of 40-17. Illinois’ losing streak continued as they met the No. 16 Michigan Wolverines, who surged in the fourth quarter to beat out the Illini 42-25.

With sixth-ranked, undefeated Wisconsin Badgers and NFL prospect Jonathan Taylor next on their schedule, the Illini needed a miracle — and they got it. In what was called one of the biggest upsets of the college football season, the Illini made a shocking fourth quarter comeback, sealed with a last-second, game-winning field goal, to win 24-23. The win against Wisconsin flipped a switch for the Illini, as they came out strong and confident in a convincing 24-6 win over Purdue and a 38-10 romping of Rutgers in the two weeks that followed. Their win streak was capped off by a 27-point fourth quarter against the Michigan State Spartans to win 37-34 and move to a solid 6-4 on the season.

Coming up against an impressive Iowa squad, Illinois’ three turnovers proved detrimental as they were narrowed out 19-10 by the 17th-ranked Hawkeyes. In their final regular season game of the year, the Illini met the Northwestern Wildcats for the sacred Land of Lincoln trophy. The Cats pulled off an impressive upset behind backup QB Andrew Marty and took the HAT for the fifth consecutive year.

To finish off the season (and a three-game losing streak), Lovie Smith and the Illini came up short against the Cal Golden Bears in the Redbox Bowl, giving up four passing touchdowns and falling 35-20.

Offensive Overview

With the departure of running back Reggie Corbin, a two-time All-Big Ten third team selection who rushed for 2300 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2019, the Illinois offense certainly took a knock, but the 86% offensive returning production gives Lovie Smith lots to be hopeful for. Michigan-transfer Brandon Peters looks to take some steps forward after struggling with accuracy and first-down production in his 18-touchdown, eight-interception 2019 season. Red-shirt junior Mike Epstein, who suffered a season-ending knee injury early in 2019 but averaged 6.4 yards per carry in his first two seasons, will likely take up the running-back workload left behind by Corbin.

Another bright spot for the Illinois offense is its experienced offensive line, with center Doug Kramer, guard Kendrick Green and tackles Vederian Lowe and Alex Palczewski returning for the 2020 season. Despite their mediocre pass protection in the past, these four guys have 125 combined career starts and have been called the best O-line in the Big Ten by Pro Football Focus. If the line can bring their pass protection to the next level, Peters has plenty of offensive weapons to work with, namely WRs Josh Imatorbhebhe and Donny Navarro. Also, Georgia-transfer Luke Ford will fit in at tight end to give the Illini a new level of physicality and efficiency in the red zone.

Defensive Overview

As Smith enters his fifth year as head coach after being fired by the Buccaneers in 2016, the lack of defensive development has been shocking. Smith was considered an elite defensive coach in the NFL, developing a number of defensive superstars and even dropping the average points allowed per game by 12 points during his time as the Rams’ DC. Illini fans are still waiting for glimpses of this defensive prowess. Though takeaway numbers were great in 2019 — leading the Big Ten with 2.2 takeaways per game and leading all of college football with six defensive touchdowns — the Illini have gotten destroyed by the run and have struggled with consistency, coming in 10th in the Big Ten in team defense last season.

The defensive departures, though few, will definitely be significant for the Illini, with 2019 Big Ten tackle leader Dele Harding graduating and DE Oluwole Betiku Jr., who had nine sacks in 2019, deciding to pass up on his final season to go pro. Even with the loss of Harding, the linebacker core will be the key for the Illini defense that features 2019 FBS forced fumble leader Jake Hansen and Washington transfer Milo Eifler.

Averaging a mediocre 212 pass yards allowed per game in 2019, the Illini secondary felt only a small hit in the loss of safety Stanley Green. Cornerbacks Nate Hobbs, who had a solid 67 tackles and 5.5 TFL in 2019, and Tony Adams, who had two picks in 10 games last season, will continue to be a consistent pairing and will provide important senior experience. Hard-hitting safety Sydney Brown — an all Big-Ten third team selection who was second on the team in tackles in 2019 with 88 — will be back for his junior year as well.

Losing two important members of the defensive line, Smith will need to count on young prospects Seth Coleman, Keith Randolph and Jer’Zhan Newton up front. Illinois will also return DE Isaiah Gay, a disruptive pass rusher who Smith has reported is “an over 600 squatter,” and South Carolina State transfer DT Roderick Perry, who Phil Steele Highest called the highest rated draft-eligible defensive tackle in the Big Ten. The two will need to step up big-time against the offensive powerhouses of the Big Ten.

Three Players to Know

Josh Imatorbhebhe, WR

With a number of breakout games last season, including a 178-yard, two-touchdown performance against Michigan State, USC transfer Imatorbhebhe is a deep ball threat with a ton of potential upside. Although missing the end of last season due to injury, he averaged over 19 yards per catch and had a nine touchdowns on the year — fifth in the Big Ten and the second most in Illinois football history. His strong, 6-foot-2, 220 pound frame allows him to make athletic grabs under pressure, as highlighted by his impressive touchdown catch in the upset win over Wisconsin.

Jake Hansen, LB

Despite his average size and quickness, Hansen’s intensity makes him one of the best tacklers in the Big Ten. Even while missing the final four games of the year due to injury, Hansen led the nation in total and per-game forced fumbles with seven and 0.78, respectively. With the departure of Harding, Hansen will move to play middle linebacker this season, allowing his solid pass defense and heavy-hitting abilities to really set the tone for the Illini defense.

Blake Hayes, P

The massive 6-foot-6 Austrailian was the Big Ten Punter of the Year in 2019, averaging 44.6 yards on 77 punts, including a booming 70 punt against Michigan. Hayes was recently listed as the top NFL punting prospect by Mel Kiper. Hayes’ punting ability has the power to take serious pressure off the Illini defense and help win good field position for Smith’s offense.

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