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How you doing...Illinois edition

How have the Fighting Illini fared so far this season?

Michigan v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Even though Illinois won four games a season ago, it came into the season with optimism. However, the season has not unfolded the way many Illini fans hoped for, especially in the last four games. A four-game losing streak has the team reeling as Big Ten play heats up. Head coach Lovie Smith is in his fourth year at the helm. With his team staring at a 2-4 record overall, his seat is may also heating up.

Here are the results from the first six games:

  • Win vs. Akron 42-3
  • Win at UConn 31-23
  • Loss vs. Eastern Michigan 31-34
  • Loss vs. Nebraska 38-42
  • Loss at Minnesota 17-40
  • Loss vs. Michigan 25-42

In this edition of B5Q’s upcoming “opponent at a glance,” we take a deeper look at how Illinois has looked so far this year.


The primary means of moving the football for Illinois is the running game. Senior tailback Reggie Corbin is the feature back; he is a solid runner and was able to run for over 1,000 yards a season ago. Corbin has dealt with injuries, but he can be a dynamic playmaker. Senior backup Dre Brown is another decent option in the run game to spell Corbin. The Illini averaged 146 yards per game on the ground in their first six games, good for No. 85 in the country. The team finished No. 12 in the nation in that same statistic a year ago when it averaged over 100 yards more per game. The running game has undoubtedly been the strength of the offense, albeit with little return.

In contrast, the passing game is very inconsistent, and it ranks 100th or worse in every major passing category. Transfer quarterback Brandon Peters was entrusted to lead the offense after fall camp, but he has not been all that impressive at this juncture outside of the first game against Akron.

Backup Matt Robinson earned his first career start against Michigan last weekend. The redshirt freshman could get the start against Wisconsin as well after throwing for 192 yards and a touchdown. Neither quarterback possesses a huge threat to the top-ranked Wisconsin defense, but the freshman signal caller was a drastic improvement for Illinois at the position against a good Michigan defense.

Josh Imatorbhebhe and Ricky Smalling are a pair of reputable receiving targets. Imatorbhebhe is tied for the B1G lead with five receiving touchdowns, and he was a former highly-regarded recruit before transferring from USC. Smalling, on the other hand, is a home-grown talent out of Chicago who can make plays when the ball gets in his hands. Both targets are bigger receivers, and with better quarterback play could be dangerous at times.

The offensive line has been rough to this point for Illinois. The running game has not been nearly as productive as it was in 2018, as noted earlier. Sacks have also been a glaring issue. The Fighting Illini rank No. 116 in the country at protecting the quarterback, yielding over three sacks per game. If Illinois is to play well Saturday or in upcoming games, the offensive line will definitely need to improve.


The Illinois defense ranks around No. 100 for both scoring and total defense at just over 30 points per game and 434 yards allowed each game, respectively. While neither statistic is overly impressive, Illinois has shown the ability to get to the quarterback and cause turnovers.

Oluwole Betiku is one of the better defensive lineman in the B1G. The former USC transfer has an astounding seven sacks already this season, and he has helped the Fighting Illini average two and a half sacks per game. He is an absolute specimen and was a heralded recruit out of high school. Betiku is one specific player to watch for on Saturday.

Dele Harding and Jake Hansen are the team leaders in tackles from their linebacker spots. Harding has been especially good with 69 total tackles, over 11 per game. The duo has also been able to get into the backfield to record tackles for loss routinely, and are the team leaders in interceptions as well. Hansen has been exceptional at causing turnovers, as he leads the nation in forced fumbles with five. Wisconsin is known to run the ball, so Harding and Hansen will be called to action a lot on Saturday for the No. 106 ranked rushing defense.

The passing defense is ranked No. 76 in the nation. The secondary has a lot of different players who have seen time this season, but Nate Hobbs and Jartavius Martin have been the primary cornerbacks. Hobbs has recorded five pass breakups and is third on the team in tackles. The secondary is one of the younger areas of the defense, but there is talent.


Illinois has not lived up to preseason expectations for bowl potential, but the season is still only half way done. Punter Blake Hayes and the special teams have been very strong. He ranks No. 19 in the country with 41 yards per punt, and he has had multiple 50-yard punts on the year, including a 70-yard effort.

With Wisconsin coming to town, the Illinois run defense will need to be better, as will the offensive line of Illinois.

Everyone knew that Lovie Smith had a steep climb to incrementally improve the roster, but now, in year four, some fans are getting antsy. The quest for six wins is still alive for Lovie’s squad, but the Badgers and the Fighting Illini are currently in very different spots in the conference race.