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Interview with a Fighting Illini: Illinois Q&A

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Steve Braun of The Champaign Room answers our questions about his favorite football team.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 28 Wisconsin at Illinois Photo by Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The No. 6 Wisconsin Badgers (6-0 overall, 3-0 B1G) are finally on the road again and will travel to Champaign, Ill. to take on the Illinois Fighting Illini (2-4 overall, 0-3 B1G). The Badgers are currently on a nine game winning streak against the Illini, the longest streak by either team in the series.

The last time Wisconsin was at Memorial Stadium, in 2017, the Badgers ruined Illinois’ homecoming game so maybe they should start scheduling someone else because the Badgers are favored to win again this year.

Steve Braun of our SB Nation B1G cousins The Champaign Room is here to give us the lowdown on what to expect when the Badgers invade central Illinois for homecoming.

1) I don’t know how to put this delicately...but...how much time does Lovie Smith have left in Champaign?

Ideally, Lovie has until about halftime on Saturday, but since it’s kind of a wash as far as when it happens, it’s difficult for me to see a scenario where he should be the head coach in 2020. The goal this year was a bowl game, and failing that, an absolute coup in recruiting spurred by how clearly the team is alllllllmost there.

Welp.

Beating two of the worst teams in FBS football (one only narrowly after a 13-0 deficit), losing to Eastern Michigan, and poor showings against the Big Ten haven’t made that statement. In fact, none of the losses were as close as the score would lead you to believe. Nebraska won despite turning it over four times and twice inside their own 20, setting up numerous short scoring drives. Minnesota held the Illini offense to three points, as the 40-17 score was made possible by two defensive touchdowns. Michigan hit cruise control after getting a 28-0 lead in dominating fashion and treated the rest of the game like a scrimmage.

Illinois v Minnesota Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

The Lovie hire was universally praised and it’s hard to believe it’s come to this, but all the evidence is right there: there’s just no improvement on either side of the ball. Realistically, though, what will probably happen is that Illinois beats Rutgers and squeaks past a heavily-injured Purdue and a confused Northwestern (while getting demolished by Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan State) to finish 5-7, most of the 2020 recruits bail, and Lovie stays anyway.

2) Potential coaching transition aside, who have been the standout players for the Illini on offense and defense?

Reggie Corbin continues to show why he got so much NFL attention. If you watch him take an inside handoff, he’s running full speed before he even hits the line of scrimmage. It’s incredible. TE Daniel Barker has been better than expected, but the biggest surprise on offense is USC transfer Josh Imatorbhebhe. Let’s call him Josh. He’s still not 100% automatic on his route-running and assignments and as a result is out of position more than you’d like, but his ability to get contested balls in coverage is remarkable, and he’s tough to tackle when he tucks the ball away.

On defense, defensive tackle Jamal Milan is an anchor that can eat up space. What he does rarely shows in the stat sheet, but he’s good at pushing the pocket back and it’s difficult to run at him. He’s the biggest positive I can highlight with the defense; while Jake Hansen and Dele Harding have played admirably at linebacker, the secondary has been a massive disappointment, and there’s nobody that can fill Bobby Roundtree’s shoes at defensive end.

Watch out for the special teams, though: punter Blake Hayes and kicker James McCourt have absolute siege weapons for legs. You’ll probably see a lot of Hayes, who punted his first touchback of the year last week. Noted long field goal enthusiast Lovie Smith has called on McCourt to kick a 57-yarder on 4th and short in the first quarter against Eastern Michigan, so maybe look for some fun with the kicking game as well. (Editor’s note: that DOES sound like fun!)

3) What sort of schemes have the Illini been running on offense and defense?

On offense, Rod Smith operates out of the spread, usually with a back, a tight end and three receivers. Virtually every play has a read-option look. Schematically, it’s not that complicated, but it relies on the quarterback making the right reads pre-snap and as the play unfolds. The idea is that on any given play, the quarterback could give it to the back, keep it himself, throw to a runner in the flat, or stretch the defense with deep passing, and all of these things are equally dangerous.

AJ Bush was a good quarterback to run this offense because he was a good runner with the football who could also take some hits, but was tall and had a big arm. Juice Williams would absolutely kill it in this scheme. Unfortunately, Illinois doesn’t quite have the personnel to make it work. They have backs in Corbin and Dre Brown that play their roles well enough, and Trevon Sidney is adequate in the slot, but there isn’t really a reliable deep threat on the team.

Illinois will sometimes send Imatorbhebhe deep and Barker on a clear-out across the field to try and beat the defense over the top, but it’s been unsuccessful the last few times they’ve tried. Brandon Peters hasn’t been a great fit for this scheme either, for two reasons: he’s not really a runner, and he’s been indecisive under pressure. He’s adequately fast, but he’s not agile or elusive enough that the defense has to respect his running ability. The second thing has really killed him though; he hesitates a lot, and teams have realized that if they blitz him, he often panics.

Michigan v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Matt Robinson knows how to run the offense and makes reads under pressure better, but doesn’t have the physical tools to take advantage. He’s a better runner that warrants more attention and his accuracy is adequate, but he’s not a strong enough thrower to prevent passes longer than 20 yards from losing accuracy and floats them sometimes. He’s also 6 feet tall and as a result prefers to operate outside the pocket.

Isaiah Williams is a true freshman who is faster than Robinson, but doesn’t know the offense that well, is three inches shorter and also has been dealing with an ankle injury (at least, I hope that’s why Jordan Glasgow was able to run him down). So...you’ll probably see a bit of a mess on offense, punctuated with the occasional spectacular play by Corbin, Brown, Barker and Imatorbhebhe.

On defense, we run a basic 4-3 that usually sits back in Cover 2. They’ve been at this for years, and yet the back seven don’t seem to communicate well when receivers cross into other zones and as a result they get lost.

The linebackers are particularly bad in pass coverage, so much so that Lovie has actually been blitzing more than he really wants to. Lovie’s system can work if everyone can tackle the ballcarrier one-on-one, everyone plays zone defense well and the front four can get pressure reliably with no help.

None of those things are true, so the defense is very bad. I mentioned Jamal Milan earlier, and if Jamal Woods were healthy at DT, Wisconsin might actually experience some resistance running to the one and three gaps...but alas.

I’m a little interested to see how the run defense holds up against a rushing offense that’s more focused on beating you physically than getting you out of position, because that’s where Illinois has struggled with the run game against spread teams. Not too optimistic, but at least it’s different.

The easiest way to score on Illinois is to throw a play-action pass. Any fake handoff causes the linebackers to all crash the line of scrimmage, leaving receivers plenty of room to run free. Watch our linebackers when Wisconsin fakes a handoff. Just watch.

4) Who is going to play quarterback on Saturday?

I really have no idea who’s going to start. I know it won’t be Williams because Matt Robinson started over him last week. I wouldn’t mind seeing Peoria’s Coran Taylor get a shot. He’s a dual-threat who’s a much better athlete than Robinson but doesn’t have his accuracy. If we want to try something different to move the ball though, it would be interesting to see the redshirt freshman get his first snaps.

Of course, Lovie Smith has been insistent that if Brandon Peters is healthy, he’ll start. Peters has had problems staying in games, which makes sense when you consider what I said about his habits against the blitz; he’s been absolutely clobbered a few times when he hasn’t recognized an unblocked blitzer.

Illinois v Minnesota Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Lovie doesn’t talk about injuries unless they’re season-ending, so there’s really no telling. Whether or not Peters starts, though, I expect Matt Robinson to get some snaps.

5) Besides Jonathan Taylor, who are you concerned about on the Badgers for both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball?

As good as Taylor is, I don’t know if it matters who’s carrying the ball for the Badgers, I just don’t think Illinois can put the clamps on the run game. Nate Hobbs can probably hold one of the receivers in check, but Jack Coan is likely to have a very high yards-per-attempt figure.

On the defensive side, I think Jim Leonhard has done a remarkable job in all aspects of the defense, to the point that I’d say this Wisconsin defense overachieves the sum of its parts by a huge margin. Nobody in the secondary is as talented as D’Cota Dixon, but the secondary is better than any unit he played on. Rachad Wildgoose has an absolutely extraordinary game.

6) For any Badgers fans coming to Homecoming...what should they do? Where should they eat and drink?

Well, the main things to see at the stadium are the Red Grange statue in the front and the brand new Dick Butkus statue in the back. Have some beers! Fund our next coach! Don’t try to go to KAM’S, because Saturday is its last night in business and even if you weren’t contending with nostalgic alumni, you probably wouldn’t want to go there unless you had spent a few years in Chambana.

Downtown Champaign has a couple of pretty good places to go, with my favorite being Destihl, a brewpub that serves one hell of a food menu. Farren’s also serves up a tasty burger, while the Blind Pig is the most popular tap house. Black Dog serves tremendous barbecue, but if it’s too crowded, hit up Li’l Porgy’s.

I’m burying the lede here.

I know what you really want.

FAT SANDWICH COMPANY is alive and well on John Street. Yes, the very same Fat Sandwich Company that you used to have in Madison. It’s the only one still in existence as far as I know, and it is spectacular.

Fat Sandwich plays a part in my memories of Illinois-Wisconsin, as just about the last thing I remember from the day of the 2011 game was seeing Wisconsin fans that were near us during the game in Fat Sandwich and yelling “I TOLD YOU THEY’D F*** THIS UP, HOW COULD YOU HAVE DOUBTED ME?”

7) Final score prediction and players of the game on offense and defense?

Final score...I mean, I don’t know how out-of-the-realm-of-possibility my 66-0 official prediction on The Champaign Room is, but there’s absolutely no chance this is anything but a start-to-finish domination by the Badgers in which Illinois never poses a threat.

There wasn’t much of a difference between the 48-3 beatdown you gave us in 2016 and the 24-10 Gentleman’s Blowout of 2017, the score was just different. Wisconsin can basically name their score here, and I think it gets to at least 52-3.

I play a college football fantasy challenge and this week I’ve picked Jonathan Taylor and the Wisconsin defense, if that gives you any indication. Taylor will get the accolades for his performance on Saturday, and it’s probably a linebacker that will rack up the most stats against us. Let’s say Chris Orr.