Saturday’s game between Illinois and Rutgers is a must win for both programs. After splitting the series the past two seasons, whoever wins the grudge match this weekend will escape the label of being the worst team in the Big Ten and possibly all of power five college football programs. The Illini are coming off their bye week, while Rutgers enters the contest with renewed confidence after a solid second half performance in the loss to Indiana.
In an effort to find out more about this week’s opponent, I was fortunate to speak with Austin Jabs of SB Nation’s Illinois site, The Champaign Room. We spoke about how the rebuild is moving along under third year head coach Lovie Smith, went into detail about the strong rushing attack of the Illini, as well as what to expect from both sides of the ball from this team. Let’s kick things off.
AB: What were realistic expectations for Illinois heading into the season and how close are they to meeting them a third of the way into the season?
AJ: I think coming in to the season there were some mixed expectations. If I recall correctly, nobody at TCR picked the Illini to win more than four games. Some picked two wins, most were stuck at three. Everyone expected some improvement, especially on offense, but I think that everyone is fairly shocked at the turnaround Rod Smith has been able to manifest early in to the season. Illinois ranks 34th nationally in yards per rush, up significantly from the 120th the Illini finished 2017. Aside from the awful fourth quarter, Illinois fared well against Penn State, putting up 245 yards on the ground against one of the best defenses in the country, the same defense that held Ohio State to 119 this past weekend. If you polled fans, the majority would be happy with the progress of this team up to this point. Still, if Lovie Smith goes winless in Big Ten play, considering this may be one of the weakest seasons for the Big Ten in recent years, the good grace may be gone.
AB: Through his tenure so far, what is the fan base’s confidence in thinking Lovie Smith is right coach to turn the program around?
AJ: Smith came in and fans didn’t really know what to expect. Going from the pro ranks to collegiate can be a huge learning curve for anyone. It is not easy to go from coaching grown men who are being paid to be there to trying to connect with 17 year old kids and convincing them to come to Illinois. Three years in, Smith has improved this program compared to day one, but it has been a slow process. Fans have been patient with Smith, and rightfully so. The majority of players that have left the program since Lovie took over have not transferred to power five programs and many have not even went on to FBS programs. Lovie inherited a mess and the job has not been easy. The better that Herm Edwards does at Arizona State, however, will irk fans who have been patient with Smith throughout the past few years.
AB: New coordinator Rod Smith spent the previous six seasons running the offense for Rich Rodriguez in Arizona after coaching quarterbacks for him at Michigan and West Virginia. What impact has he had on the unit this season and how has freshman quarterback M.J Rivers developed so far?
AJ: As discussed earlier, Rod Smith has turned the Illini running game around in short order. Ranked 34th nationally, Illinois has a legitimate running game that can put numbers up against anyone. Rivers has been improving week in and week out, however he still makes freshmen mistakes. He still relies too heavily on his running ability instead of his arm. I believe by the close of the season he will be a legitimate deep passer, but right now he just isn’t there yet. Smith is, however, an improvement over the last OC 100 times over.
AB: Running back Mike Epstein is back after suffering a season ending foot injury last year. How has he bounced back and how are he and fellow battery mate Reggie Corbin being utilized in Smith’s offense?
AJ: Epstein has been solid this far on the ground and his receiving has started to pick up. With a 0.7 yards per attempt improvement this season over his short 2017 campaign, Epstein has shown the ability to grow with his role and under Rod Smith. Coming in to 2018 I would have bet anything that Epstein would be the lead back and would average close to 100 yards per game. Now, with the emergence of Reggie Corbin, the Illini have a legitimate 1-2 punch in the backfield, complimented by two potential quarterbacks (Bush and Rivers) that can run the ball when needed as well, possibly spelling trouble for many Big Ten foes.
AB: How has the defense been this season and who are the key players for Rutgers fans to take note of?
AJ: I am as big a fan as they come, but the best way I can describe this defense, and I mean absolutely no disrespect, is mediocre at best. With an undersized defensive line and slow defensive ends, Illinois is still building the defense they need to be able to compete week in and week out in the Big Ten. I do think that the corners and safeties are better than advertised. The return of Bennett Williams and Nate Hobbs should help improve the struggling defense, but the skill players on the defensive side of the ball should continue to improve as the season goes on.
AB: Senior kicker Chase McLaughlin has had a good season for the most part, but missed two 50+ field goal attempts in the recent loss to Penn State. Considering this game could be decided by the kickers, how much confidence is there in him heading into this contest?
AJ: McLaughlin is the MVP of the Illini. He has never missed an extra point, and at 8-11 on the season, he is about as automatic as they come. If it comes down to a game winner, the staff and fans would have infinite confidence in his ability to win the game.
AB: These two teams have split the past two seasons, what is your prediction for the grudge match?
AJ: This is our Super Bowl. Illinois will come out swinging and seek revenge for last season. Illinois wins 35-21.
Thanks to Austin for giving us such great insight on Illini football. You can follow him on twitter here. Also visit The Champaign Room for complete coverage of Illinois athletics. For my answers to Austin’s questions on Rutgers football, click here.