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Q&A: What to expect from Illinois against Wisconsin

Our chat with The Champaign Room.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Rutgers Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

The No. 23 Wisconsin Badgers look to bounce back from a rough defeat as they host Illinois on Saturday morning inside Camp Randall Stadium.

Illinois (3-3, 1-2 Big Ten) come off a 46-7 blowout loss to Purdue last weekend. Its rushing offense (nearly 229 yards per game) is potent, but it gains less than 385 yards per contest overall and is 108th in the nation in third down conversions so far.

Its defense ranks among the best in turnovers and interceptions nationally, but gives up 31.5 points and 504.7 yards per game, along with nearly 200 yards on the ground per outing.

To help us break down head coach Lovie Smith’ squad (along with his beard), The Champaign Room’s Raul Rodriguez answered some of our questions.

Last week, Purdue trounced Illinois in a 46-7 blowout win at Memorial Stadium, but the Illini come into the game with a 3-3 record and boasting only eight seniors and 24 total upperclassmen—which is the fewest in the nation. What has been the general feeling about this team this season heading into Saturday’s game?

When Lovie Smith went with a youth movement in 2017 (that yielded a 2-10 season), everyone expected 2018 to be another tough season. There was, however, some offseason optimism with the hiring of offensive coordinator Rod Smith, a Rich Rodriguez protege, from Arizona and tight ends coach Corey Patterson, a renowned high school coach in the St. Louis area. Then, almost like clockwork, the Illini landed two blue chip recruits. Nonetheless, the off-season optimism was guarded because the Illini still had the profile of a three or four win team going into 2018.

The close loss against South Florida, the first 2.5 quarters against Penn State (when the Illini held a 24-21 lead), and the 38-17 win at Rutgers gave Illini fans more room for hope. But, after last week’s humbling home loss to Purdue, there’s an underlying feeling that, although the Illini have improved on 2017, they might not win another game this season. The Purdue loss was deflating. Jeff Brohm, in only two years at Purdue, seems to have the Boilermakers light years ahead of the Illini who are in year 3 of the Lovie Smith Era. Going forward, the Illini will be underdogs in every game left on the 2018 schedule. So, the general feeling is that some progress has been made since last year, but overall, the Illini are nowhere near being competitive in the Big Ten West. This has led fans to question whether Smith is going to be able to turn things around. The national media has questioned the hire of Lovie from Day 1 but now Illini fans, who have been very patient with Lovie thus far, are starting to question the hire.

We always ask about injuries. Who could be out, who’s returning, and what does that mean in terms of impact for the game?

Sophomore cornerback Tony Adams could be out with a hamstring injury. In 2017, he started as a true true freshman and was the first true freshman starter at the position since the mid-2000s. His season was cut short due to injury. This season, he has played well at times. His loss could create issues for a secondary that lacks experience and it could make it easier for Alex Hornibrook to get the ball down field.

Offensively, Illinois is near the bottom of the FBS in some major categories except for running the ball, where it’s 22nd in the nation in averaging nearly 229 yards per game. How has the offense utilized the likes of Reggie Corbin, Mike Epstein and A.J. Bush to success so far this year?

Bush has been in and out of the lineup and has split time with M.J. Rivers at the position, but running backs Mike Epstein and Reggie Corbin have been bright spots for the Illini offense. Offensive coordinator Rod Smith has done wonders in designing an offense that utilizes Epstein up the middle and Corbin on the perimeter. The offense is essentially the classic Rich Rodriguez’s read option with some RPO concepts built in to get the ball to the perimeter and downfield. Despite Smith’s competent game planning, the quarterbacks do struggle to make the correct reads, but when they make the correct reads, explosive plays ensue and the offense hums from there.

On the defensive side of the ball, again, not great in some key stats like scoring defense (31.5 points per game), rush defense (199.5 yards), passing yards allowed (305.2), but Lovie Smith’s defense leads the conference in turnovers—with the unit tied for fifth in the FBS in interceptions. Why has the defense struggled, but also how has it created so many takeaways?

The defense has been opportunistic, which is good, but it has also been extremely porous and inefficient, which is very bad. If you view football from the perspective of S&P, you learn that there’s a component of luck in forcing turnovers. So, in reconciling the Illini’s poor defensive stats with their ability to force turnovers, you realize that this is a bad defense that is still aggressive and opportunistic. If they’re lucky, they will get some turnovers to limit their porousness and inefficiency. When they are not lucky, things get ugly.

Where do you think Illinois could present problems for Wisconsin, and where do you feel the Badgers could have success against the Illini this weekend?

With seven new starters on defense, the Badgers have struggled to stop the run. This plays into the Illini’s ability to run the ball. So, I would expect the Illini to try to gash the Badgers on the ground and try to make big plays on the perimeter or in the passing game when Wisconsin crowds the box.

As for what Wisconsin will do, I would expect Jonathan Taylor to have a field day against the Illini defense. If Hornibrook, who can be turnover prone, avoids them, then Wisconsin should be able to score at will on the Illini defense.

What’s your game prediction for Saturday?

I think this one will be similar to the Illini’s game against Penn State. The Illini will hang around for a half but will eventually get overwhelmed by a superior Wisconsin team. I expect the Illini to have a good offensive game plan that will take advantage of their strengths in the run game, but after halftime, I expect Jim Leonhard and Wisconsin to scheme a way to stop the Illini run game. On the other side of the ball, the Badgers will score early and often, but a few first half turnovers will keep the Illini in it before Wisconsin blows this open in the second half. Wisconsin 52 Illinois 21

Bonus question: On a scale of 1-10, how majestic is Lovie’s beard?

The majestic-ness of the beard depends on how the Illini are playing. When the Illini are playing well, the beard is as majestic as a Unicorn blazing across the foliage covered Northwoods of Wisconsin. For portions of the South Florida game, for all of the Rutgers game, and for the first 2.5 quarters of the Penn State game, the beard was a beautiful 10 out of 10.

When the Illini are playing poorly, the beard is as majestic as a smoke stack factory in Gary, Indiana. Against Purdue, the beard was a 2 out of 10 and exposure to it could lead to long term health and environmental issues. If the Illini play poorly the rest of the season, don’t be surprised if what’s left of the EPA comes in and forces Lovie to shave the beard.