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Q&A With Illinois’ The Champaign Room

NCAA Football: Purdue at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Tomorrow begins the second half of the season for Rutgers football in what is a pivotal game against Big Ten West opponent Illinois. They are undergoing a similar process in rebuilding their program with a first year coach. Lovie Smith wasn’t hired until early March, which isn’t ideal for any coach taking over a program, especially since this is his first head job in college football. Illinois has struggled this season with a 1-4 record and are looking to rebound after an overtime loss to Purdue last week.

I was able to speak with Trevor Vallese (@TVallese) from SB Nation’s Illinois blog, The Champaign Room to find out more about Rutgers opponent this week. He gave some great insight as to which players to watch for tomorrow, as well as how their fan base is handling the season. Here we go!

Whenever a new coach takes over, culture change is always a major focus. What was the initial reaction of the fan base regarding the hire of Lovie Smith and how have the first few months of his tenure gone in rebuilding the culture? What were the expectations of the fan base for this season and for the future?

Well the initial reaction of the hire was tremendously positive. Illinois was in football hell with Tim Beckman and Bill Cubit, so hiring an NFL coach with a Super Bowl appearance under his belt was certainly exciting. Lovie brings an entirely different demeanor to the program, and it was very clear from day one of practice that he runs a calm, cool and collected ship. Season one is not going as well as the fan base had hoped, but personally I think people jumped to expectations that the team would immediately be “fixed” and contend. That just isn’t the case this season, but these are Tim Beckman’s players that had three months to learn an entirely new system. The outlook long-term is still very bright.

What have been some of the biggest issues with this team regarding the 1-4 start and how are the fans taking it after last weekend's loss at home to Purdue?

It’s tricky to pinpoint one specific issue that has plagued the team. On offense, the wide receivers have underperformed greatly thanks to Mikey Dudek being out for the year again. Bad route running and dropped catches have led to an Illinois offense that is primarily short inside passes and a ground game. On defense, the DL has been great. Led by NFL draft prospect Dawune Smoot, they’ve created a formidable pass rush that has consistently created pressure on the opposing team’s linemen. It’s the secondary that’s the problem. Teams have basically been able to go wherever they want against the Illini and it seems like at least twice a game the opposing RB breaks off a huge run. That happened against Purdue last weekend too, which was an incredibly frustrating loss that probably dashed any dream of Lovie’s first season being a successful one.

Illinois has the least amount of first downs in the Big Ten and is the most penalized team in the conference. Have there been any system changes on offense or defense since Lovie took over and has that contributed to these issues, or is it just a lack of execution?

I think it’s mainly just a lack of execution. The penalties have been a problem since Week One. Even against Murray State, the one negative fans could point out was the lack of discipline. Carroll Phillips, one of the Illini’s best defensive linemen, was ejected for targeting against Purdue and won’t play in the first half this Saturday. When asked this week by a member of the media if he thought he was going too easy on his team, Lovie got about as mad as you’ll ever see him, responding with, “Are you freaking kidding me? I’m not answering that. Are you freaking kidding me?” Penalties have been an issue all year, and it seems Smith is pretty aware of that by now. It’s just a matter of getting it fixed.

Any update on the injury status of quarterback Wes Lunt? Please compare his game with backup Chayce Crouch and how that impacts the Illinois offense depending on who plays.

Lunt’s status for this weekend is still in question. Lovie wouldn’t answer whether or not he’ll be healthy by Saturday but maintained that if he was he’d be the starter. Chayce Crouch brings an entirely different style of play to the field with his running ability. He scored two rushing TD’s against Purdue and the Illinois offense looked pretty successful running the option with him under center. However, I’m sure Lovie would still greatly prefer to have Lunt starting.

Who are some key players on offense other than at quarterback that Rutgers fans should be aware of?

There aren’t many, but freshman running back Reggie Corbin has bursted onto the scene along with junior back Kendrick Foster. Even though Ke’Shawn Vaughn was thought to be the clear starter at RB, Foster and Corbin have put together some impressive performances and they both have the elusiveness to break out some big runs. They’re two players to watch. Malik Turner is the standout wide receiver on offense, but after Turner there aren’t too many deep threats.

Has the defense improved this season under the new coaching staff and who are some of the key players on this side of the ball?

The defense has not improved so far this season. In fact, statistically the secondary is one the worst in the country. As mentioned earlier, the defensive line is the strong unit on this side of the ball and they boast some pretty terrific players who could eventually see playing time in the NFL. Hardy Nickerson is the other name that should be mentioned. He’s the son of the defensive coordinator, and he came up big last week with a late interception that Illini fans *thought* would seal a victory. He currently leads the Big Ten in tackles per game as well. Nickerson, Smoot and Carroll Phillips (once he returns from his suspension) will be the players to watch.

How do Illinois fans generally travel for road games and what type of turnout do you expect on Saturday? Is the fan base optimistic for a win this weekend against Rutgers?

Illini fans tend to travel well to games nearby (Northwestern always has a huge turnout, as well as Iowa and Purdue), but I don’t expect too many fans to make the long trip to New Jersey for this game. Prior to the Purdue debacle some fans were probably pretty optimistic about picking up a win against Rutgers. Now, sitting at 1-4, all optimistic expectations are out the window. I don’t really know what to expect when a team that lost by 78 points faces a team that lost to one of the worst programs in the FBS, but I don’t think many Illini fans are anticipating a victory. It might be a different story if this game were in Champaign.

What is your prediction for how this game will play out?

As I said above, it’s hard to predict the outcome of a game with two bad teams playing. So I’ll go for something insane; maybe this game will play out like last season's Illinois-Rutgers basketball matchup. I’ll take the Illini pulling out a close victory in triple OT, 58-55.

Thanks again to Trevor for giving us some great insight on Illinois ahead of tomorrow’s game. Check out the SB Nation Illinois blog The Champaign Room for more insight and to read my answers to Trevor’s questions on Rutgers, click here.