Michigan is heading to Champaign, Illinois this weekend for an 11 A.M. local start time. This marks the first time Michigan has played the Fighting Illini since 2016, but has anything fundamentally changed with the program since then? To find this out and more we turned to our friend Drew Pastorek at SB Nation’s The Champaign Room for some Illinois intel.
Behind Enemy Lines Q&A
Q: Illinois is 2-3 on the season, but two of the three losses have been by just 4 points or less. Have they been competitive this season despite a losing record? What are your impressions of the job Lovie Smith has done since he took over as head coach?
A: Competitive is an -- interesting -- word. The Illini smoked Akron in Week 1, leading to a rush of unbridled optimism that lasted...an entire week. An uninspiring win over UConn led to a sense of impending dread which manifested itself against EMU. That game was fairly tight throughout, though the Eagles did have a two-TD lead midway through the 4th quarter. The Nebraska game was not nearly as close as the score would indicate -- the Huskers ran 98 plays and put up nearly 700 yards. If not for Nebraska’s 4 lost fumbles that’s a 63-24 kind of game, rather than 42-38.
I think most Illinois fans were excited when Lovie Smith first got to Champaign -- the program needed credibility and he was respected for his time in the NFL. Obviously, we knew the first few seasons were going to be rough, as the staff had to virtually reconstruct the entire roster. Last year there were some recruiting wins, but the actual wins were hard to come by, and the defense was horrendous, surrendering 63 points THREE separate times. Now, in the midst of season four, with hardly any improvement, fans are pretty fed up and most of us are ready for The Lovie Smith Experience to be over. The things that doomed Lovie in the League (stubbornness, lack of adjustments, mild-mannered demeanor, hiring bad assistants) are also dooming him at Illinois.
Q: Quarterback Brandon Peters is questionable for the game. Do you think he’ll play and what are your thoughts about his play through Illinois’ first five games?
A: Lovie Smith said this week that Peters’ injury isn’t “season-ending” and he’s still being evaluated. If you saw the way his head hit the turf last week I’d be hesitant to play him. Peters has certainly had his ups and downs this year. He was pretty good in the non-conference season, and I like the resolve he showed in the 4th quarter against Eastern Michigan, leading the team back from two scores town to tie things up late. He’s not going to be the reason Illinois loses a game, but he panics under pressure and doesn’t look like the right fit for an RPO offense.
Q: What is Illinois’ biggest strength and weakness?
A: The special teams unit is very good. Blake Hayes is one of the best punters in the country, and someday, possibly, maybe, that could actually help Illinois win a game this season. Kicker James McCourt has been solid, as well. There is also decent depth at WR and RB.
Main weaknesses that I’ve seen would be discipline and defense. The Illini repeatedly screw themselves with careless penalties, so they’re either playing behind the chains or extending the opponents’ drives. I’ll get to the defense in a little bit (foreshadowing!).
Q: Who’s the best player on offense, and on defense?
A: I don’t think too many would argue that Reggie Corbin is the go-to guy for Illinois’ offense. He’s averaging more than 6.5 yards per carry and can certainly break loose for chunk plays on the ground. He hasn’t been as good this year as he was last season, but that has less to do with him and more to do with the predictability of the offense. I’m also a fan of our two USC transfers at wideout, Josh Imatorbhebhe and Trevon Sidney.
Defensively, linebacker Jake Hansen has put together a solid year. He swarms to the football and is a really good tackler on a really bad tackling team. Wole Betiku -- another former USC guy -- is our best pass rusher, with 7 sacks through 5 games. He’s a physical freak and one of the few “game wrecker” types on the roster.
Q: Schematically what can we expect from the Illinois offense and defense?
A: The offense will depend on the closeness of the game. Ideally, the Illini are competitive (or even leading!) and can have a balanced attack, with Corbin and Dre Brown setting the tone on the ground and QB To Be Determined being able to throw the ball when called upon. Realistically, Illinois will be trailing by a lot and will be forced to throw to try a comeback, rendering the run game inconsequential.
Why do I say that? Well, have you actually SEEN our defense? Lovie Smith’s scheme -- Cover 2, Tampa 2, whatever the hell you want to call it -- simply does not work in college. Missed assignments all over the place, and tons of room for backs and receivers to roam. The defense has shown little progress during Lovie’s time in Champaign. Any team that watches tape for more than 30 seconds should know how to crack it.
Q: What are your thoughts about the game in general? Any predictions?
A: I’ve tried to be the optimistic fan for most of the season, but after a pitiful game against Minnesota I’m in full “wrestling heel” mode now. All of us were idiots for thinking this season would be different. The B1G has been a hot mess this season, so Illinois could still pull a surprise win out of their ass, but this ain’t it.
After watching the Wolverines physically dominate Iowa I don’t know how anybody could reasonably think the Illini have a chance. Michigan wins, 41-13.
Oh, and we play Wisconsin next week. I’m overjoyed.
A big thanks to Drew for answering our questions, be sure to check out all the Michigan vs. Illinois coverage over at The Champaign Room