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Know Your Foe: Illinois Fighting Illini

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I feel bad for Lovie...

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 12 Illinois at Northwestern Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

University of Illinois

Location: Champaign, IL

Enrollment: 44,087

Illinois Football Fast Facts:

Home Stadium: The University of Illinois - Memorial Stadium

Head Coach: Rod Smith (Interim; 0-0)

Conference: Big Ten

Conference Titles: 15

Overall Bowl Record: 8-10

Series History

Saturday’s matchup will be the 25 all-time meeting between the Nittany Lions and Fighting Illini. The Nittany Lions have dominated the series that started way back in 1954, winning 19 of 24 matchups. The two programs last met in 2018, a 63-24 victory for Penn State after surviving a hot start from Illinois. The Illini beat the Nittany Lions twice this past decade, once in 2010, a 33-13 win in Beaver Stadium and 2014, a 16-14 win in Champaign. Their win in State College in 2010 is the only time the Nittany Lions have fallen to the Illini at home, where they own a 9-1 record overall.

What they did last season (6-6 ; 4-5)

Last season was up and down for the Illini pretty much throughout the season. They started off 2-0 with wins over Akron and UConn, two of the worst programs in America before losing four-straight including a loss to Eastern Michigan. Their biggest win of the season was a shocker over then-No.6 Wisconsin, they’d also pick up wins over Purdue, Rutgers, and Michigan State. They would ultimately make Redbox Bowl at 6-6 but would lose 35-20 to Cal.

Recruiting and offseason:

It’s been tough for Illinois in terms of recruiting. The Illini brought in the nation’s 88th ranked class last recruiting cycle (2020) which also ranked dead last in the Big Ten. They also brought in nine transfers last year including six Power Five transfers. The early returns on the 2022 cycle are not great either, ranking 73rd nationally and 13th in the Big Ten. Will the firing of Lovie Smith, however, impact the class with Signing Day on Wednesday?

What they did last week: 28-10 Loss to Northwestern

It was an ugly game for Illinois on both sides of the ball. Offensively, they could get nothing going, putting up 262-yards of total offense while defensively, they gave up 411 total rushing yards in the game as the Wildcats ran wild all day.

Offense:

The Illinois offense has struggled for the most part all season. When they do beat you, they’ll do it by running the ball, averaging over 200 yards per game on the ground. Through the air, they’ll get yards here and there but ultimately they won’t beat you passing the ball, averaging just 157.6 yards per game. Overall, their offense averaging 20 points and 359.5 yards per game.

The quarterback picture at Illinois is murky, they’ve had three different quarterbacks attempt 45 or more passes in senior Brandon Peters, sophomore Coran Taylor (injured), and redshirt freshman Isaiah Williams. As a position group, they’re completing 47.9% of their passes this season for 1,081-yards and eight touchdowns. They have, however, limited interceptions with just three on the season.

As mentioned above, the found is where Illinois has found the most success. They have four players averaging five yards or more per carry (min. 20 carries).

The two names to really know are sophomore Chase Brown, a former Western Michigan transfer and junior Mike Epstein. Brown has rushed for 510-yards and two touchdowns this season on 93 carries while Epstein has 350 yards and four touchdowns on 61 carries. They’ll be the two backs receiving the most carries against the Nittany Lions. The other two players averaging five or more yards per carry are quarterbacks Isaiah Williams (48-287-1) and Brandon Peters (24-136-1), so their quarterbacks do have some dual threat potential.

In terms of receiving, 12 different players have recorded receptions for the Illini this season but only three have recorded double-digit catches. Leading the way is USC transfer Josh Imatorbhebhe with 22 receptions for 297 yards and three touchdowns. TE Daniel Barker put together a solid campaign so far with 16 catches for 214 yards and one touchdown. The last player to reach double-digit receptions is sophomore Casey Washington who has 10 receptions for 106 yards.

Defense:

It’s been an ugly season defensively for the Illini, allowing 30 points and over 450 total yards per game. Opposing offenses have been able to attack the Illini both by passing the ball and running the ball, averaging over 220 both on the ground and through the air. They’ve allowed 6.4 yards per play this season and 28 total touchdowns. It’s been a struggle to say the least for Illinois.

There’s really just a trio of players to know heading into this game defensively for Illinois including a pair of linebackers. Senior linebacker Jake Hansen has been one of the Big Ten’s best this season, totaling 59 tackles, 7.5 tackles for a loss, and one sack while also grabbing two interceptions, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. Junior linebacker Khalan Tolson also has been great this season with 37 tackles with six tackles for a loss and 1.5 sacks. Finally, defensive lineman Owen Carney Jr has been their best lineman with 24 tackles that included six tackles for loss and five sacks.

The Illinois secondary as a whole has been decent when the ball is in the air with seven interceptions and 14 pass deflections. That being said, they’ve allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 69.5% of their passes this season.

Special Teams:

Special teams has had it’s moments for the Illini, they’re averaging solid numbers in the return games at 17.4 yards per kick return and 9.3 yards per punt return.

Senior punter Blake Hayes has been solid with an average of 43.7 yards per punt over 33 attempts, while in terms of place kicking senior James McCourt and sophomore Caleb Griffin have combined for 17-for-17 on extra points and 7-for-11 on field goal attempts.