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Behind Enemy Lines: Q&A with The Champaign Room

In our Q&A, The Champaign Room writer Trevor Vallese discusses the current Illinois team in detail, breaks down the Illini’s matchup with Michigan on Saturday, and offers a score prediction that Wolverine fans certainly will enjoy.

Purdue v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

The Wolverines enjoyed their time off last weekend, but it’s back to business for them.

No. 3 Michigan (6-0, 3-0 B1G) hosts Illinois (2-4, 1-2 B1G) on Saturday, and the Maize and Blue need one more win to have its best start to a season since 2006. The Illini are the team standing in Michigan’s way, so, to learn more about them, we reached out to Trevor Vallese (@TVallese), a writer for The Champaign Room (@Champaign_Room) — SB Nation’s Illinois site. Trevor was gracious enough to answer our questions about Illinois’ turbulent transition to Lovie Smith, whether Illini fans prefer Wes Lunt or Chayce Crouch to start at quarterback, how Michigan should exploit Illinois’ biggest defensive weaknesses, whether Illinois has any hope for a win this weekend, and more!

Make sure to read Trevor’s excellent responses below!

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Maize n Brew: Illinois football underwent a tumultuous time last season and last spring. The Illini improved from two to four to six wins in their first three seasons under Tim Beckman, but, just one week prior to 2015, they fired him after the results of an internal investigation substantiated allegations of gross player mistreatment. Bill Cubit was named the interim head coach for the 2015 season and then the permanent head coach in November, only to be relieved of his duties in March by new athletic director Josh Whitman. With Whitman and Lovie Smith at the helm, what is the current state of Illinois football?

Trevor Vallese: I would describe the current state as hopeful. With Beckman and Cubit gone and Lovie at the helm, there is a sense that the future of the program is finally in good hands and there is certainly potential for contention in the Big Ten. We’re not seeing that right away this season, but I can’t think of too many first-year coaches that bring immediate success, especially to a school like Illinois where the previous tenure left an absolute dumpster fire. This season’s team is Beckman’s players trying to play under Lovie’s system, and it hasn’t really translated so far. But for the first time in a long time, the future looks bright, and that gives the Illini fan base a tremendous amount of hope.

MnB: Illinois made a nice splash with the hire of Lovie Smith, a long-time NFL head coach with a Super Bowl appearance under his belt. However, this is Smith's first foray into college football since he was a position coach at Ohio State in 1995 -- more than 20 years ago. Has there been any concern from lllini fans regarding Smith's transition from the NFL to the college game? How has Smith recruited so far? And do fans like what Smith has to offer?

TV: There was a lot of talk from both the media and the fan base about how long Lovie has been away from college football. He reassured everyone that he’s still kept an eye on the college game and that it wouldn’t be a problem. We’re only six months into his tenure at Illinois, but there are certain signs that make it clear he is having to adjust to the big differences between pro and college football. The biggest one, obviously, is recruiting. So far he has nabbed several four-star in-state players that fans are excited about. The current 2017 class isn’t all that great, but give Lovie a chance to have a full calendar year to establish relationships and recruit players and I think he’ll do a good job. Fans are very excited about what the future might potentially hold. They’re just a little more concerned about it now due to the poor start to this season.

MnB: Illinois snapped a four-game losing streak and earned its first victory against an FBS team with a 24-7 win over Rutgers last week. Was there an uptick in Illinois' performance or was this the result of facing, well, Rutgers?

TV: As Michigan well knows, Rutgers isn’t exactly a Big Ten juggernaut. I’d like to say that the Illini can build off this win and attempt to turn their season around, but in the end, I really think this was just the result of facing Rutgers. The offense under Chayce Crouch has absolutely zero passing game to it and there were still way too many penalties and mental mistakes, but it didn’t matter against Rutgers. The defense forced five turnovers, yes, but honestly at least three of those turnovers Rutgers forced on themselves (not being ready for the snap and fumbling it, for example). As much as I’d love to point to this win and say THIS is where Lovie turns it around, I think Illinois’ performance was mostly due to the fact that they were playing the worst team in the Big Ten.

MnB: Senior quarterback Wes Lunt (60.5 cmp%, 6.5 YPA, 6 TD, 1 INT) has missed the last one-plus games with an injury, and his status for this weekend is up in the air. If Lunt sits out, the Illini will put the ball in the hands of sophomore Chayce Crouch (56.3 cmp%, 7.8 YPA, 1 TD, 1 INT, 6.1 YPC, 2 TD). What are the strengths and weaknesses of each of these quarterbacks? And which would Illinois fans prefer start against Michigan this weekend?

TV: First of all, most Illini fans want to see Lunt. Even though he’s taken some criticism (as most quarterbacks do), he’s leaps and bounds better than Chayce Crouch and at least always gives the Illini a chance to spring an upset if he’s having a great game. Lunt’s biggest weakness, however, is Crouch’s biggest strength. The main criticism that the fan base has about Lunt is his complete inability to scramble. He will sit in the pocket until someone takes him down, and he never, ever runs with the ball. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say he may be the least mobile QB in college football. Crouch may be one of the most. He’s suited for a read option offense, and if he doesn’t like what he sees downfield, he can take off running and make something out of it. The thing about Crouch is that he can’t throw. Which is, you know, kind of important with a quarterback. He went 6-14 for 92 yards against Rutgers. So if Lunt is still out this week, look for a run-first, run-second and run-third offense. With a pass attempt on maybe every other series.

MnB: Illinois has struggled offensively this season. The Illini are tied for 84th in scoring offense and 88th in Offensive S&P+. However, if there is one area where the Illini have excelled, it's been explosive runs. They are second in S&P+'s Rushing IsoPPP and tied for 12th in 30-plus-yard runs (8). Why are Kendrick Foster (62 car., 384 yards, 6.2 YPC, 5 TD), Ke'Shawn Vaughn (44 car., 221 yards, 5.0 YPC, 2 TD), and Reggie Corbin (35 car., 325 yards, 9.3 YPC, TD) such threats to break off long runs out of the backfield? What plays does the Illinois offense utilize to get these running backs into open space?

TV: If there has been a surprising bright spot for the Illini this season, it’s come out of the backfield. Kendrick Foster, who almost transferred last season before Lovie was hired, has been a stud and has shown an amazing ability to keep pounding. He’s your “stuff it up the middle and get seven gritty yards” RB. Then there’s freshman Reggie Corbin, who excels at bouncing it to the outside and breaking off long runs thanks to his elusiveness. He’s the one the Illini will look to on screen or pitch plays. And then there’s Ke’Shawn Vaughn, who has been seeing a lot fewer snaps than Illini fans expected due to the breakout of Foster and Corbin. He’s the traditional first and second down back that the Illini use, and even drew some comparisons to Matt Forte from Lovie in the preseason. Look for Illinois to utilize these backs as much as possible, especially on trick and screen plays, to try and create some explosive runs.

MnB: The strength of Illinois' defense undoubtedly is its defensive line. Led by defensive ends Dawuane Smoot (8.0 TFL, 1 sack, 2 FF) and Carroll Phillips (11.0 TFL, 4.0 sacks), the Illini are 18th in adjusted sack rate and fifth in defensive-line havoc rate. How is the defensive line so disruptive up front? And what is the best way for Michigan's offense to counter that?

TV: The defensive line is Illinois’ best unit on either side of the ball. Dawuane Smoot is a projected first-round draft pick, and yet Carroll Phillips, Chunky Clements, and Jamal Milan have shown flashes of being just as good. Throw in Auburn transfer Gimele President, who has also been impressive, and you’ve got a really good d-line. I think the big key to the success of this unit is their ability to get consistent pressure on the quarterback. In the games that Illinois has lost, especially that home loss to Purdue, they haven’t been able to find and sack the QB. In their victories, they’ve gotten consistent pressure on the opponent’s offense and have forced teams to make some bad throws to escape sacks. Honestly, the best way for Michigan’s offense to counter is to have a good OL. The Illini haven’t gotten to the QB in three games this season; those three opposing OL’s all rank in the top 30 in the nation. The Wolverines’ offensive line ranks in the top 20 in several major stats according to Football Outsiders, so Michigan’s offense might be able to effectively counter the Illinois DL.

MnB: Nonetheless, Illinois' defense has had more than its fair share of troubles. The Illini are 122nd in Run Defense S&P+ and 88th in Pass Defense S&P+. Though opponents prefer to have their fun against Illinois on the ground (Illinois' defense is 12th in standard downs run rate), it seems they have been able to find success either way. What has been the biggest weakness of this Illinois defense? If you are Michigan, what would you do to exploit it?

TV: I think you kind of answered your own question here. The biggest weakness is the fact that both the run and pass game can’t ever be shut down. Some teams can focus on one specific area that their defense struggles with, but the Illini have had their troubles stopping the run and the pass, and it’s mainly due to a poor secondary. The d-line, as discussed above, is doing great. But if a back or a wideout gets past that unit, they’ve probably got open space. Whether it’s missed tackles or completely missed assignments, the Illini have given up way too many big runs. So they plug the holes and try to stop the run. And then a wide receiver gashes them for a 60-yard touchdown catch. It’s a debate of which is worse, the run defense or the pass defense, so Michigan can feel free to try out both and see which one works best on Saturday.

MnB: The last time that Michigan and Illinois faced off, the Wolverines shut out Tim Beckman's first-year Illini squad, 45-0, in Ann Arbor. The spread for Saturday's game is Michigan -35, so it seems we are looking at a similar outcome. What do Illini fans hope will happen at the Big House on Saturday?

TV: Ha. The Tim Beckman days. Despite this 2016 season probably being a lost cause (2-4 with Michigan, Iowa, Northwestern, Wisconsin and MSU still left on the schedule) it is nice to have the long term reassurance that your head coach seems to know what he’s doing. With Beckman, it was completely unknown what he might say or do next. With Lovie, you’ve got a calm demeanor and a hard-working guy who is honestly trying his best to make this team a contender. So while I have absolutely no expectations of a win on Saturday, I won’t be as depressed if a similar 45-0 outcome occurs because I know/hope Lovie will fix it eventually. I don’t think this game will be close but I’m just shooting for anything better than 78-0.

MnB: Prediction time. What happens? Who wins? What is the final score?

TV: As I said above, I’m not expecting a win or even a close game. I’ll say Illinois sticks around in the first quarter, and maybe even the halftime score is still somewhat close (28-13 or something), but ultimately the Wolverines will run away with this one. Michigan 56, Illinois 20.

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There you have it! Trevor predicts that Michigan will just cover the spread and improve to 7-0 in a comfortable fashion. What do you think? Do you agree with Trevor’s responses below? Where is he right? Wrong? Please tell us in the comments below!

And, before we sign off, a big thank you to Trevor for taking the time to answer our questions. Make sure to follow his Illinois coverage on Twitter at @TVallese!