Hello folks! Another week, another Q&A with the enemy where they pick Iowa to come out on top. This time, however, there’s probably good reason - Illinois just isn’t good at anything except running the football. Still, I fear the reverse jinx.
To get to know the Illini better ahead of this weekend’s matchup, I enlisted the help of The Champaign Room, SB Nation’s premier Illinois Fighting Illini blog. Austin Jabs was more than happy to give us some insight on the Illini, including the temperature of the fan base in another down year under Lovie Smith, Illinois’ phenomenal running game, and whether or not this defense can do anything to maintain even a mediocre Iowa offense.
Without further ado, here are the Q’s and the A’s.
Max Brekke: Lovie Smith is in his third year at the helm of the Illinois football program, and while the Illini have recorded four wins so far this season (the most in his three years!), it sounds like there’s quite a bit of unrest amongst Illini fans. What is the state of the program, and is it likely that he’ll be back for a fourth season?
Austin Jabs: I think the state of the program is on track for where many expected. In the preseason, I, like many on TCR, predicted four wins. According to that metric, we should all be happy and content, right? I mean there will be at least two more wins in 2018 compared to 2017. That said, the unrest is real, and frankly, warranted. The bright spot for this team, the amazing offensive improvement under new OC Rod Smith, is evident and glorious. The flip side, though, is the garbage that has been the Illinois defense. Sitting near dead last in all of college football, the Illinois defense has regressed in 2018. At 532 yards given up per game, Illinois is ahead of only Oregon State and Connecticut in that category. For a head coach that has made his name with defense, Illinois’ deficit is glaring and an embarrassment to the Big Ten. I think the buyout is too large for Illinois to terminate the contract, but I believe this is the better year to be on the hunt for a new coach, as not many power five jobs appear likely to be open.
Max Brekke: The Illini offense is lethal on the ground, where they’re averaging 262.8 yards per game, good for second in the conference. Who can Iowa fans expect to see handle the carries, and what are their strengths out of the backfield?
Austin Jabs: Rod Smith is clearly a world beater. After working his magic in Arizona he has come to Champaign to turn this offense around in quick set. Corbin should get the lions share of carries, but the three headed monster of Corbin, Brown, and Bonner make the Illini rushing game strong. Corbin loves to run to the outside and has shown elusiveness when he gets there. Give him a hole and there is no play where I don’t think he can hit the end zone. Bonner and Brown really work well up the middle and are great at grinding those extra yards after contact. All three of the main backs have the ability to be patient while the Illinois offensive line creates lanes and space on the field.
Max Brekke: AJ Bush is very much a running quarterback. How do Lovie and Co. utilize him in the passing game, and should Iowa fans expect for Illinois to take advantage of them through the air at all on Saturday?
Austin Jabs: I have knocked Bush (and MJ Rivers) for their lack of passing all season long. Over the past few weeks, Bush has shown promise in the passing game but has shown a tendency to both under and over throw wide open receivers. Bush tends to fold at the sight of pressure and runs far too often. I would love to see Bush trust his arm and receivers more but that just isn’t who he is. I expect 18-23 passing attempts this weekend for around 175 yards. The bulk of offense, as has been the case this season, will come on the ground.
Max Brekke: This week’s game will feature a matchup between what’s been a very stoppable force (the Iowa offense) and a completely movable object (the Illinois defense). Iowa fans know all about the Hawkeyes’ offense, but how are the Illini most vulnerable on defense? What would you consider their strengths?
Austin Jabs: Which part of this really bad collective is the least bad? There really isn’t a good part of this bad defense. Based solely on numbers, no unit on this defensive side of the ball has been able to stop the run or the pass. However, I guess if I have to pick a strength I guess I would lean on the corner and safety play. With 14 picks so far this season, that appears to be the only bright spot for the defense. The issue with that idea is that those same corners and safeties are responsible for one of the worst passing defenses in the country. Turnovers are a fluky thing, and you can’t judge how good or bad a unit does based on them, yet I feel like that is what could turn this game in favor of the Illini.
Max Brekke: Any key injuries for the Illini this week?
Austin Jabs: Reggie Corbin (foot) and Stanley Green (undisclosed) are both questionable for Saturday but I would expect them to suit up, even if on limited snaps.
Max Brekke: Prediction time - who ya got?
Austin Jabs: I don’t want to do this. I am so tired of picking teams to beat Illinois. I have been with TCR for three years and every season is an exercise in futility. It is a bleak place to take up residence as an Illinois fan. Vegas has this as a 16 point win for Iowa. I think Illinois covers, but not because the Illini learn defense. No offense, but the Iowa offense is stagnant at best. Iowa gets the W, though, 22-10