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Interviews with Football Frenemies: Illinois Fighting Illini Edition

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Illinois showed a lot of spunk against South Florida, but can Lovie Smith’s squad slow down Penn State?

NCAA Football: South Florida at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois was expected to be the worst team in the Big Ten this year, but already the program is looking a little more spry than many of us thought. The Illini defeated Kent State in their opener despite falling behind by two touchdowns in the first half. They followed that up with a win over Western Illinois and a closer-than-the-experts-thought loss to South Florida in Chicago. It all doesn’t look so bad when you consider that Rutgers just lost to Kansas, Northwestern fell to Akron, and Purdue hasn’t beaten anyone yet. Maybe, just maybe, this Illinois team is ready to surprise the way that the Boilermakers did last season.

We’ll get a better idea of Illinois’s chances at bowl contention when the Nittany Lions come to town for a weird, television-network-ordained Friday night game. Love Smith’s team isn’t very deep due to youth and injury issues, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see Penn State blow away another opponent in the second half. On the other hand, Illinois’s strong running game could give the Lions trouble the way Pitt’s did two weeks ago while working to keep Trace McSorley and company off the field.

To learn more about Illinois and their fans’ expectations for this game, we talked to Thumpasaurus from SB Nation’s Illinois blog, The Champaign Room. Thanks to Thump for taking the time to answer our questions!

Black Shoe Diaries: Will AJ Bush be healthy enough to play in Friday’s game? Even if he is, is he a superior option to the freshman M.J. Rivers II?

The Champaign Room: If there’s one thing we’ve learned about Lovie, it’s that he plays his cards pretty close to his chest where injuries are concerned. Unless they’re of the season-ending variety, it’s rare that you’ll hear a specific time frame for a player’s return and often the exact nature of the injury is a mystery (last year’s injuries to Dudek and Epstein were described as “an internal injury” and “a lower body injury”; they were a lacerated kidney caused by a broken rib and Epstein broke his foot, but this didn’t come out until later).

Given that the quarterback run is a major part of Rod Smith’s offense, a healthy Bush will always be his preferred option. That being said, with a bye week coming up before two season-defining games, I can see Bush being held out at 98 percent. We know he has a hamstring injury, and unlike Tim Beckman, Lovie Smith believes hamstring injuries are real. I don’t think Bush starts unless he’s 100 percent, so I think it’s more likely that Rivers starts. Rivers’s decision-making is ahead of his experience and he throws by far the best ball of any Illini quarterback, but he’s the least effective runner and struggles under pressure. If Rivers starts, you should also expect a healthy dose of freshman Matt Robinson, who was a late addition to the 2018 class out of California and hand-selected by Rod Smith himself.

BSD: Among tailbacks, Reggie Corbin got the most carries in Illinois’s first two games, but against South Florida, Mike Epstein led the pack with 19 carries and five receptions. Is Epstein the lead back now, or was the South Florida game just a change of pace? Is there a difference in the rushing styles of Corbin and Epstein?

TCR: Epstein is the feature back, no question about it. In a rare bit of transparency, the coaching staff admitted that they eased Epstein back into game action in the first two games, limiting his carries to make sure he’s comfortable on that surgically-repaired foot. The bubble wrap came off against South Florida and you should expect Epstein to get the bulk of the carries. Corbin and Epstein are very similar players; both are speed backs, but they don’t often run themselves into trouble a la Barry Sanders. They’re more of the one-cut-and-he’s-gone school of speed backs. As Rod Smith’s offense continues to grow, you’ll see speed at the skill positions be a high priority. Ra’von Bonner is the change-of-pace back and he got the bulk of the carries after Epstein went down last year. He’s what passes for a power back in this offense, and to his credit he doesn’t often get pushed back, but it’s rare to see him go for more than five yards because his field vision needs a lot of work.

BSD: Mike Dudek tragically suffered another season-ending knee injury in the Kent State game. How has his absence affected the Illinois passing attack? Can Ricky Smalling fill the void and become the go-to receiver after gaining more than 500 yards in his freshman campaign?

TCR: Dudek was so good that he dragged Tim Beckman to a bowl game behind the arm of career backup Reilly O’Toole. I’m sure Penn State fans remember what we like to call Franklin’s Folly, the 16-14 Illinois win in 2014 where Dudek was right there with the ball every time we needed him. Even with a historically inept quarterback room last year, he made some highlight catches and helped us avoid what would have been a horrible defeat at the hands of Ball State to open 2017. It’s not just Dudek’s loss that hurts our passing attack though; Appalachian State graduate transfer Shaedon Meadors was in line to be a starter before suffering a season-ending injury. And that’s to say nothing of USC transfer Jalen Greene, who joined the team only to find out he hadn’t qualified academically. We have a serious problem with the way admissions communicates with prospective students and this kind of thing happens far more often than it should. Greene now plays for Utah State.

To sum up our situation, our starting X/Y/Z receivers were going to be Smalling, Meadors and Dudek with Greene being the first guy off the bench. Smalling is all that remains, and behind him there’s not really much. Sam Mays missed all of last year and hasn’t been a factor; fellow sophomore Carmoni Green spent a lot of last year in the doghouse and will play his first game of the year Friday after being suspended for the first three games. He’s best known for an enormous brain fart against Rutgers last year. Outside of that, there’s converted linebacker Justice Williams, former emergency quarterback Trenard Davis, and true freshman Carlos Sandy. Rivers connected with true frosh Edwin Carter for two touchdowns against Western Illinois, which was a pleasant surprise until Carter’s knee was demolished by a helmet while he made his second touchdown catch. So there’s three season-ending knee injuries to receivers.

The long and short of it is that Smalling was supposed to be part of a solid starting trio with some depth off the bench, but is now the only guy I could call a plus player at the position. He doesn’t have elite speed/quickness, but he has great hands and a nice vertical. Tight end Louis Dorsey returns from suspension this week and I’m eager to see how he does. He’s a great athlete with sick hands.

BSD: The Illini as a team snagged just nine interceptions in 2017, but this year they already have six through three games. Is the secondary being more aggressive than last year’s bend-but-don’t-break unit? Does freshman starter Jartavius Martin look like a future star?

TCR: Lovie’s protege Hardy Nickerson has made turnovers a point of emphasis, with a hand signal for “three” being a rallying cry. They want to force three turnovers per game, and this defense has emphasized the Charles Tillman punch-the-ball-out-on-every-tackle method of tackling. The defensive philosophy is conservative and assignment-sound with blitzes being uncommon, but the attitude towards turnovers is to be as aggressive as possible; jump routes, strip the ball, hit the receiver to jar the ball loose, etc. The picks against South Florida were both great heads-up plays on tipped passes. Illinois has apparently instructed defensive linemen to get hands up if they can’t get to the quarterback, so we’re batting balls down at a higher rate. Martin has impressed, but the three guys to watch in this secondary are sophomores that have one start between them this year. Tony Adams missed the first two games with an injury, but his presence was felt against South Florida. Corner Nate Hobbs will return from suspension to start opposite Adams, but the star of this secondary is 2017 Freshman All-American Bennett Williams. The hard-hitting safety was a two-star recruit with only an offer from Cal Poly, but he’s become a leader on this team and he was sorely missed in the first three games. This secondary has started a walk-on who should really play linebacker (Michael Marchese) and rolled deep with freshmen; expect them to look a little less lost at full strength.

BSD: One of the team’s only senior starters, Del’Shawn Phillips, has two interceptions to go with 24 tackles. Is he having as big an impact as the stat sheet suggests?

TCR: Phillips is a very solid player who makes good decisions and good reads, but he lacks the speed and quickness to recover from things like overrunning the play and isn’t a sideline-to-sideline defender. He doesn’t miss tackles and doesn’t often make mistakes; if he had the range of his successor, redshirting Washington transfer Camilo Eifler, he would be an elite player. The linebacker that has surprised me has been Jake Hansen, who has been by far the best player on this defense. He tied a school record with six TFL’s against Kent State, and though he occasionally overcommits to the wrong side of the play, he takes good angles, tackles well and has the speed to contain the edge. What makes this so surprising is that he missed all of last year with an ACL tear, and that injury usually makes me lower my expectations for returning players. He’s better than he’s ever been this year.

BSD: Illinois had a 12-point lead on Group of Five power South Florida before blowing it in the fourth quarter. Did the first three quarters of the game give any indication that the Illini might be better than expected this year? Is the fan base confident that Lovie Smith can continue to ramp up recruiting to a more competitive level?

TCR: During the game, it was hard not to be excited as an Illini fan. This was a very athletic South Florida team that replaced Quinton Flowers with a guy that once started Alabama’s home opener and as a result the consensus was that we would get absolutely drilled. That being said, if you look at the box score, it becomes clear that South Florida shooting themselves in the foot repeatedly was the reason they trailed 19-7 in the fourth quarter. They racked up 14 penalties and all seemed to come in crucial situations. Blake Barnett was fairly inaccurate and missed some open receivers downfield. Nevertheless, he still completed 23 passes for over 400 yards. USF out-gained Illinois 626-380. This is a game that probably should have been 45-13, as the Bulls moved the ball at will.

Even more worrying than the ease with which USF moved the ball was the Illini offense in the fourth quarter. As the ground game dried up, Illinois took to the air. In response, USF dropped eight men into coverage, and yet their three-man rush was beating our pass protection in less than three seconds. Even bringing in extra protection didn’t help. A more seasoned quarterback than Rivers might have thrown it earlier, scrambled or thrown it away, but he was still sacked in 2.5 seconds by a three-man rush against max protection (a tight end and a running back to help).

Nevertheless, some positives were there; the run blocking was better than the first two games, and it was really encouraging to see the Illini line up against a superior team and make fewer mistakes. Penalties have been a big problem for the entire Lovie Smith era, and it was refreshing to see the other team be the one to struggle.

BSD: The Illini are four-touchdown underdogs on Friday. How do you see the game going for Illinois?

TCR: You know, if Bush starts and Rod Smith has been holding back parts of the playbook, I think it’s possible that Illinois hangs around for about 20 minutes or so. However, Penn State is probably going to cover this spread, and I doubt Trace McSorley plays more than one drive in the second half. The Illini defensive line has been disappointing so far. I was hoping we’d be better against the run, but I doubt we will be. Against the pass, we have talent in the secondary, but they’re still young and prone to mistakes. I think we’ll have a tough time pressuring McSorley, so this will be a good opportunity to see just how good of a pocket passer he is if he wants to sit back there and make throws.

What worries me most is the Illini offense against this defense. We are, of course, intimately familiar with former Illinois defensive coordinator Tim Banks. With little talent on a young 2013 roster, Banks’ aggressive defensive scheme allowed opponents to put up absurd rushing numbers against us; I remember several occasions against Indiana where the whole defense overran Tevin Coleman and he jogged down the field into the end zone. The 2014 defense stiffened up late, and it’s not actually that surprising that Banks has had success at Penn State (however infuriating it may be). Anyway, I’m repeating what I said on today’s episode of the We Know You Have Sand Illinois podcast: South Florida was stopping us in the backfield with a scheme not designed to stop us in the backfield. Tim Banks likes to bring a ton of pressure and blow up plays behind the line, and our young OL is going to struggle to do anything about it. Illinois will probably run a lot of screens to try and beat the blitz. It’s possible that the Illini, particularly Corbin or Epstein, break off a long touchdown, but you’ll see a lot of plays go for a loss.

The phase in which we really excel is special teams. Our coverage has been excellent, our return game has been adequate and our kicking specialists are, in my opinion, second to none. Lovie Smith has tons of faith in Chase McLaughlin, so you may see some 50-plus yard field goals. I think punter Blake Hayes might be our most skilled player on the entire team, which I suppose is good because he’s going to have a lot of touches in this game.

I think 45-9 is a reasonable expectation, with the vast majority of Penn State’s points coming in the first half. A 35-3 first half seems like a thing that would happen.

Really, our benchmark is Homecoming 2005. If we can get through the game without suffering any injuries and have a closer game than 56-3 at the half, that’ll be good enough.

Our season is all about the three weeks after this one; bye week, at Rutgers, vs. Purdue. Win those two and this season has been wildly successful.

Thanks again to Thumpasaurus for helping us out with our game coverage. For more on Illinois athletics all year round, be sure to check out The Champaign Room!