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What Husker fans need to know about the Illinois Fighting Illini

November 10, 2018

A preview of Illinois, the first opponent of the Scott Frost era to face Nebraska without a defensive coordinator.

* * *

Record: 4-5 (2-4 Big Ten)

Offensive yards per play: 6.20 (39th nationally)

Defensive yards per play: 7.01 (125th)

Turnover margin: plus-3 (T-38th)

Penalty yards per game: 63.7 (88th)

Coach

Lovie Smith (9-24 at Illinois)

From the magnificent white beard he debuted at Big Ten media days in July to absorbing the defensive coordinator role last week, the veteran NFL coach and third-year Illini head man has showed a continued willingness to adapt in the college ranks. While no one is mistaking Illinois for a major player — its 38-17 win over Rutgers last month broke a streak of 13 straight league losses — the program is on the rise with a $79.2 million football performance center set for completion before next season. Smith has attracted average-ranked recruiting classes to this point, but he’s a name brand after stints as head coach with the Chicago Bears (2004-12) and Tamp Bay Buccaneers (2014-15) that included one Super Bowl appearance.

Offense

Type: Spread

Coordinator: Rod Smith

As disappointing as the defense has been, Illinois’ up-tempo attack has been electrifying under its new 45-year-old play caller. Its run game is the nation’s most improved this season, ranking 11th in yards per game (249.44) and sixth in yards per carry (6.08) after coming in 123rd (105.58) and 120th (3.28) last year. The offense is explosive too, with 16 scoring drives of less than one minute, tying Clemson for third most in the country.

Smith is a protégé of Rich Rodriguez. He played for him at NAIA Glenville State in the mid-1990s and spent 10 of his 22 years in coaching under him. Smith — no relation to Lovie — landed in Champaign after Rodriguez was fired at Arizona last winter and replaces Garrick McGee, who Lovie Smith didn’t retain after two seasons.

Defense

Type: 4-3

Coordinator: Lovie Smith

Third-year coordinator Hardy Nickerson resigned for health reasons late last month following a 63-33 loss to Maryland in which his unit allowed 712 total yards. Lovie Smith — a defensive assistant or defensive-minded head coach throughout his career — filled the role last week in a 55-31 win over Minnesota. But the group remains one of the leakiest in the country overall, ranking 128th of 130 FBS teams in total defense (524.8 yards per game) and 116th in scoring defense (36.9 points per game). The Illini can create takeaways. Cornerback Jartavius Martin and linebacker Del’Shawn Phillips each have three interceptions, and the team overall has 13 picks, tied for sixth nationally.

Players to watch

Reggie Corbin, running back: Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the new offense has been the 5-foot-10, 200-pound Corbin, whose 105.78 rushing yards per game rank 15th in the country. He’s the reigning co-offensive player of the week in the Big Ten after carrying 13 times for 213 yards and two touchdowns against Minnesota. Watch out for the long play. He owns seven runs of 50-plus yards and is averaging a whopping 9.07 yards per carry to rank second among FBS players with at least 100 attempts.

Chase McLaughlin, placekicker: The man known around Champaign as “Chase McLongkick” earned his nickname with a nation-leading four field goals of 50-plus yards. The senior is 17 of 22 this season and leads the Big Ten in total points scored (81). Getting the ball to Nebraska’s 35-yard line means the Illini will be in scoring position. The Cypress, Texas, probably has a future in the NFL and has been one of the few constants for the team during an up-and-down fall.

They said it

“We’re saying the same thing about our program. You get there and really see yourself being able to take off. We love being three-touchdown underdogs going into an environment like that.” Lovie Smith on Nebraska’s recent improvement.

“At the end of the day, I’m going there to play. I don’t like to hold grudges.” Illinois senior quarterback A.J. Bush, a former Nebraska reserve.

“Growing up, I was a huge Illinois fan. When I was being recruited they kind of (snubbed) me. Nothing against Lovie Smith, I think he’s a great guy and a great coach. But I’m not as much of a fan of Illinois anymore.” Nebraska center Tanner Farmer, an Illinois native.

Three stats

1: Win in Lincoln in nine tries all-time by Illinois. That victory came in 1924, when the Huskers held Red Grange scoreless for the first time in his career but couldn’t prevent a late field goal in a 9-6 game

646: Total yards of offense generated by the Illini last week against Minnesota. The number is fifth-most in program history.

31: New players who have made their Illinois debuts this season. That includes 18 freshmen and 17 defenders.

Schedule

Sept. 1 vs. Kent State, W 31-24

Sept. 8 vs. Western Illinois, W 34-14

Sept. 15 vs. South Florida (in Chicago), L 25-19

Sept. 21 vs. Penn State, L 63-24

Oct. 6 at Rutgers, W 38-17

Oct. 13 vs. Purdue, L 46-7

Oct. 20 at Wisconsin, L 49-20

Oct. 27 at Maryland, L 63-33

Nov. 3 vs. Minnesota, W 55-31

Nov. 10 at Nebraska

Nov. 17 vs. Iowa

Nov. 24 at Northwestern​

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