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Hawkeye Football Opponent Preview: Illinois Fighting Illini

With returning talent at quarterback, can the Illini pull together a winning season in 2020?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 30 Redbox Bowl - Cal v Illinois Photo by Bob Kupbens/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As we countdown the days and weeks until the beginning of the Iowa football season, we’ll be previewing each of Iowa’s opponents in 2020. While the season may seem more and more unlikely by the day, there are still games on the schedule as of this moment, so we’re previewing the teams, even if we don’t know when the season might start anymore after the Big Ten cancelled all fall non-conference games in every sport, instead slating only conference opponents for all seasons.

But we’ll keep on going until we have nothing to write about, and then we’ll just write about other random stuff. Our latest entry in our series of previews is Iowa’s newly determined week 5 opponent (who’s counting what anymore), the Illinois Fighting Illini. The Illini are fresh off an up-and-down season that featured big highs and low lows heading into Lovie Smith’s fifth season at the helm of the program.

Illinois Fighting Illini

2019 Record: 6-7 (4-5), 4th in Big Ten West

When Lovie Smith’s Illinois program was on last season, they were on. 2-4 overall and 0-3 in conference play heading into a home matchup against the Wisconsin Badgers, the Illini needed a win. Badly. And they produced it, in the form of a 24-23 win over the No. 6 ranked Badgers, which kicked off a four game winning streak. The win streak was bookended by a 37-34, come-from-behidn victory against Michigan State, that they once trailed in 28-3, to capture a spot in a bowl game.

But Illinois ended the season on a low note, losing its last three games in miserable fashion to Iowa, conference cellar dwelling Northwestern, and Cal in the Redbox Bowl.

But with some strong returning talent and a season where the program showed potential like it hadn’t before under Smith, it’s safe to say the Illini are in the hunt to have the 2020 season go in a better direction.

Key Departures

Offensively, there is a lot of veteran talent returning to the Illini squad. The biggest departures come in the run game (despite mild success at best in 2019), headlined by Reggie Corbin, who departed early for the NFL (but didn’t get drafted) after a season in which saw him tally 675 yards and 7 touchdowns. Dre Brown, who split carries with Corbin and tallied 584 yards and 5 touchdowns, graduated.

Defensively, the team loses the skills of Dele Harding, who led the team in tackles with 154 total solo and assisted tackles, 3 interceptions, 2 touchdowns, 3 forced fumbles and a fumble return.

Defensive lineman Oluwole Betiku left early for the NFL as well, signing with the New York Giants as an undrafted free agent after a season tallying 19 solo tackles and 9 sacks. Senior DB Stanley Green graduated after logging 69 nice tackles last year, along with two other linemen, so pass rushing might be an issue.

Key Returners

The team returns a lot of talent on both sides of the ball. Four starters on the offensive line returned, headlined by quarterback Brandon Peters. Peters only threw for 1,884 yards and 18 touchdowns last season on 55% completions, but was monumental in the Illini’s wins, particularly the comeback against Michigan State. Having returning talent at QB will be monumental for Smith’s program, especially considering the talent at offensive line and receiver. The offensive line is headlined by center Doug Kramer, along with guard Kendrick Green. The line is rounded out by returning tackles Vederian Lowe and Alex Palczewski.

Check out this vid of Kramer pushing a truck this spring. If he can do that, I don’t think he’ll have any problem with most Big Ten defensive linemen...

At receiver, things will start and end with Joel Imaorbhebhe, who tallied 639 yards and 9 touchdowns on 33 catches in 2019. In all, five of Peters’ targets from 2019 will return, and it will most likely result in a stronger offensive performance, even with the relative inexperience at running back.

Defensively, the tone will be set by returning linebackers Jake Hansen and Milo Eifler. Hansen recorded 41 solo tackles, 3.5 sacks and an interception, while Eifler logged 39 tackles and two sacks.

The secondary sees a lot of returning talent as well. Safeties Tony Adams and Sydney Brown return, along with cornerbacks Nate Hobbs and Marquez Benson, who is returning from a knee injury suffered last season.

Rounding out the returners is Aussie punter Blake Hayes, who received All-Big Ten recognition last season, along with kicker James McCourt, who sealed the deal for Illinois’ win over Wisconsin last season with his last second field goal.

2020 Preview

Things are certainly looking up for the Illini talent-wise in 2020, but their new conference-only schedule is not doing them any favors. The year will (as of this writing) start off with a road trip to Columbus, followed by road trips to Nebraska and Indiana. They’ll also travel to Madison later in the season, where the Badgers will certainly be looking for revenge. Illinois does face Iowa, Minnesota and Penn State at home, but with no real breaks anywhere in the schedule, the Illini will need to put things together fast if they’re going to earn a winning record against this schedule.

Iowa/Illinois Prediction

This is a road game for Iowa, taking place in week five for both teams. We’ll know a lot about the teams, and since it comes at the halfway point of the season, could be a really pivotal game for the season outcome. However, fans or no fans, I think Iowa will be able to take this one with its overall physical presence. It just might be a little closer than we expect.

Iowa 31, Illinois 27