Alright. I know it’s been fun to bask in the greatness that was Iowa’s thrilling victory over Meechigan this past weekend, but it’s unfortunately time to move on. There’s another football game comin’ up this weekend, and it’s against the Fighting Illini in Champaign, IL (which, in my humble Illinoisan opinion, is the worst Big Ten city of them all). The Fighting Illini haven’t been great this season, as they’re 3-7 and have beaten football powerhouses Murray State, Buttger, and Michigan State.
But I’m sure there’s still something to know about Illinois, right? We talked to Trevor Vallese, a staff writer over at SB Nation’s Illinois blog, The Champaign Room. In this Q&A, I got to ask him some meaningless questions about running backs and Lovie Smith, as well as the important questions, such as HOW DOES HE FEEL ABOUT PANCHEROS? Yeah, that’s right - Champaign has a Pancheros. Maybe it’s not so bad after all...?
Without further ado, let’s get to those questions.
Max: Illinois is in Year 1 of the Lovie Smith experiment. How is that going, and how do the fans generally feel about the direction of the team thus far under his guidance?
Trevor: Year One has certainly been a disappointing one under Lovie Smith, but that’s what some of the Illinois fanbase expected. Illinois was in football hell with Tim Beckman and Bill Cubit, so hiring an NFL coach with a Super Bowl appearance under his belt was certainly exciting. Lovie brings an entirely different demeanor to the program, and it was very clear from day one of practice that he runs a calm, cool and collected ship. Following his hire back in March, some fans’ expectations for this season rose immensely. Even Illini beat writers were calling for seven or eight win seasons. Personally, I was not in that camp. I called for a 5-7 campaign with an eye towards the future of what this program could be under Smith. Looks like even that prediction will be too optimistic, unless the Illini can win two in a row to finish off the season (unlikely). The fact of the matter is that this isn’t Lovie’s team or Lovie’s players. These are Tim Beckman’s players that were given less than two weeks to adapt to an entirely new offensive and defensive system before spring ball began. So while some fans are obviously disappointed that 2016 isn’t going the way they hoped, I wouldn’t say there are any jumping off the Lovie bandwagon just yet because it’s far too early in the rebuilding process. Rome wasn’t built in one day, and I think this fanbase is willing to give Smith the benefit of the doubt for now.
Max: Wes Lunt was hurt for a while, but was apparently healthy enough to play after Jeff George, Jr. tossed four picks against the Badgers. Who should we expect to see at QB for the Illini, and what will they offer in terms of production?
Trevor: All indications are that Wes Lunt will be the starting QB this weekend for his final game in Champaign. Jeff George Jr. engineered some impressive drives to fuel a comeback victory over Michigan State two weeks ago, but his performance against the Badgers was truly awful, and his four first-half interceptions basically forced Lovie’s hand to play Lunt. He may not be 100% yet, but there is no doubt Lunt is lightyears ahead of George Jr. and offers a much better opportunity for Illinois to bring home a Senior Day win.
Max: Illinois' rushing attack is ranked 10th in the Big Ten, but running backs Reggie Corbin and Kendrick Foster both average over 6 yards per carry. Is this a product of being behind so often in games, and in what ways can Iowa expect the Lovie and Co. to utilize their backfield pieces?
Trevor: It’s interesting that the Illinois running attack ranks so low in the conference. If anything, I would say Illinois’ potent run game has been the only surprising bright spot this season. Both Reggie Corbin and Kendrick Foster bring elusiveness and toughness to the Illini backfield, and without them I’m not sure where Illinois would be right now. Probably 1-9. 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” back. Corbin, on the other hand, excels at bouncing it to the outside and breaking off long runs thanks to his quickness. He’s the one the Illini will look to on screen or pitch plays. Look for Illinois to utilize both these backs as much as possible, especially on trick and screen plays to try and create some explosive plays.
Max: Iowa has been very inconsistent on defense - they got thumped by Penn State's offense two weeks ago, but just came off a game where they absolutely stuck it to the Wolverines. In what ways will Illinois try to attack this Hawkeye defense?
Trevor: Well, Illinois doesn’t boast much of a deep threat game. The wide receiver position is very thin and very inexperienced this year, so even though the Hawkeyes have struggled at times defending the pass, they should be able to have their way with the Illini WR corps. As mentioned above, I would expect Lovie’s gameplan to include as much running back involvement as possible. We even saw some wildcat the past few weeks when George Jr. was struggling mightily and before Lunt was cleared to play again. The Illinois passing game definitely improves with Lunt under center, but I’d still expect the gameplan to be primarily “ground-based.” They’ll try to shove it up Iowa’s throat, it’s just a matter of how effective that strategy will be over the course of a four-quarter game.
Max: The Hawkeyes have been virtually unable to throw the ball at all this season, leaning heavily on their running backs. How well does the Illinois defense stack up against the run, and what will the Iowa offense have to do to beat the Illini?
Trevor: The bright spot on the Illinois defense is most definitely the defensive line. It boasts three potential NFL prospects in Dawune Smoot, Carroll Phillips and Chunky Clements. The Illini are ____ in the Big Ten in rushing yards allowed per game, but that’s mainly due to some huge runs opponents have ripped off. The DL is great at plugging the holes and stopping a lot of runs at the line of scrimmage, but every once and a while, when an opposing back slips through the first wave of defense, they rip off an enormous run of 50 or 60 yards against a porous and inexperienced Illini secondary. Iowa will probably be able to get anything they want if they can get through that tough D-line and into the secondary.
Max: Is Maize on Green St. elite?
Trevor: Maize is fantastic. Their chips and salsa are almost as amazing as their guacamole. The only downside is the lack of a bathroom and seating for only 15-20 people. But it’s definitely worth the wait; it’s my favorite local Mexican place. So yes, to answer your question, Maize is definitely Green Street Elite.
Max: Hey, while we're talking about Mexican food, Iowans LOVE Pancheros. Both Champaign and Urbana actually have a Pancheros. HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT PANCH?
Trevor: Champaign just got a Pancheros in the past year, and if I’m being honest I’ve only been there once. It was pretty good, though I’m a Chipotle guy myself. The guac at Chipotle and the queso at Moe’s are great, but Pancheros definitely has something going for it considering they boast both. In fact, I think you’ve helped me make up my mind for what I’m getting for dinner tonight.
Max: Alright, prediction time. Who do you think will win, and why?
Trevor: I think this will be a low-scoring game and Illinois will definitely put up a fight on Senior Day, but ultimately the Hawkeyes will come away with a victory. I’ll go with Iowa 24, Illinois 10.
Thanks to Trevor for his time and insight! Of course, I think the Hawkeyes will throw six hundred points on your team. For more on Illinois football, check out The Champaign Room and follow them on Twitter at @Champaign_Room. And as always, go Hawks.