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Know Your Foe Week 4: Illinois Fighting Illini

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The Fighting Illini are fighting injury and suspensions this season.

Kent State v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

University of Illinois

Location: Urbana and Champaign, Illinois
Enrollment: 45,813 (undergraduates and post graduates)

Illinois Fighting Illini Football Facts

Home Stadium: Memorial Stadium (Capacity 60,670)
Head Coach: Lovie Smith, third season, 7-19 (.269)
Conference: Big Ten (West Division)
Overall Bowl Record: 8-10 (.444)
Conference Titles: 15
Claimed National Titles: 5

Series History

First Game: September 25, 1954 (Penn State won, 14-12)
Last Game: October 31, 2015 (Penn State won, 39-0)
Overall: Penn State leads 18-5
Current Streak: Penn State, 1

Last Season (2-10 overall, 0-9 in the Big Ten)

2017 wasn’t kind to the Illinois Fighting Illini, who had just two wins -- against Ball State and Western Kentucky. Illinois finished 2-10 and winless (0-9) in the Big Ten putting them at last place in the Big Ten West Division.

Recruiting and Offseason

The Illinois 2018 class ranks as the nation’s 53rd recruiting class (12th in the Big Ten) as compared to Penn State’s 2018 class,ranked at sixth in the nation and second in the Big10 (per 247 Sports).

In January of 2018, Illinois hired a new offensive coordinator, Rod Smith, who was previously the co-offensive coordinator at Arizona. Illinois also added Cory Patterson, previously the head coach at Trinity Catholic High School in St. Louis, as its tight ends coach.

Last Week

Illinois lost a close one to the South Florida Bulls, 25-19, falling to 2-1 this season, in what actually looks to be one of their better starts in the past few years. In his first career start, in for injured starter AJ Bush, freshman quarterback M.J. Rivers II finished the day 20 for 29 passing for 168 yards. Senior kicker Chase McLaughlin was the star of the game, nailing a career-high four field goals, including a 53 yarder. Sophomore running back Mike Epstein ran for 113 yards and 1 touchdown and had 5 receptions for 56 yards. For the defense, DelShawn Phillips and Jake Hansen had 8 tackles each.

Offense

Just when you think things couldn’t get much worse for the Illinois offense --- a team who in 2017 was 126thin total offense and scoring offense, 122nd in rushing offense and 106th in passing offense --- injury struck, taking out starting quarterback AJ Bush and wide receivers Mike Dudek and Edwin Carter earlier this season. Then backup quarterback Cam Thomas left the program in September. But despite departures, injuries (and some suspensions), the Illini have a few key players on offense who could help them win more than two games this year.

Freshman Illinois quarterback M.J. Rivers II, who started in last week’s game, looks to be the starter this week. So far this season, Rivers is 29 of 45 yards (64.4%) for 273 yards and 2 touchdowns.

Sophomore Mike Epstein, the leading rusher for the Illini in 2017 is back and healthy after missing most of 2017 with an injury. In just a few games last year, he ran for 346 yards on 57 carries before getting injured. Expect to see junior Reggie Corbin run the ball a lot as well – he’s already racked up 240 yards, 3 touchdowns on 37 attempts this year and 5 receptions for 25 yards. Ra’Vonn Bonner is in the mix, too.

With wide receiver Edwin Carter out, Epstein, Sam Mays, Trenard Davis and Ricky Smalling have shared catches for the team. But Smalling, with 7 receptions for 110 yards so far this year, is questionable for this week’s game after a foot injury. And tight end Lou Dorsey is out with a suspension, with freshman Daniel Barker in that slot.

The Fighting Illini return their offensive line from last year, but seeing how they were one of the worst in the conference in 2017, they’ve got some room to improve.

Defense

Illinois was 85thin total defense last year, 34thin passing yards allowed – not terrible – but 116thin rushing defense.

A bright spot for the defense is senior linebacker Del’Shawn Phillips, who returns after leading Illinois on tackles in 2017 with 85 tackles, 4 TFLs and one sack.

Sophomore defensive lineman Bobby Roundtree returns (led sacks for the team last year with 4). Sophomore safety and last year’s ESPN freshman All-American Bennett Williams had a stellar 2017 with 64 tackles, 1.4 TFL, 3 interceptions---but was suspended before the season and it’s uncertain if he’ll play this week.

Cameron Watkins (39 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 1 interception) returns at corner and Stanley Green (2ndleading tackler with 70 in 2017) returns at free safety for Illinois. So far, the leading tackler this season for the Illini is Jake Hansen with 26 tackles and 6 TFLs.

Special Teams

Senior kicker Chase McLaughlin brings some consistency on special teams, and was 12-17 on field goals and 100% on extra points last year. He’s 7 of 8 for field goals so far this season and 100% on extra points.

Punter Blake Hayes returns and he’s had 19 punts for 876 yards (46.1 average).

Corner Nate Hobbs (with 22.3 yards/return last year) would have handled kickoff returns this season, but was suspended indefinitely. With Dudek, their punt returner, also out with a knee injury, Carlos Sandy has handled punt returns and kickoff returns this year for the Illini, with Christian Boback and Dominic Stampley filling in on kick return duties and Jordan Holmes and Dawson DeGroot (no relation to the Guardians of the Galaxy character) handling some punt returns.

Blog

Read more about Illinois sports at their SB Nation blog The Champaign Room.