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A Coach Named Lovie & a Team From Champaign: THE CORN NATION Q&A With Illinois

Is there really such a thing as a gimme win when we’re 2-7? (Besides Bethune-Cookman)

NCAA Football: Kent State at Illinois
Where’s Lovie?
Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois comes to town tomorrow and following a near upset of the Buckeyes, Husker fans are about as confident as a 2-7 team’s fans can be. But is Illinois really as bad as we hope they are or does this have the possibility of turning into one of those “Here we go again” type of affairs? Never mind the added indignity of having former Husker QB AJ Bush lead the offensive charge if the worst should happen.

For views from our opponent, we turned to Austin Jabs of The Champaign Room to offer his thoughts on this matchup. He took time out to answer questions on Lovie Smith’s job security, the aforementioned AJ Bush and RB sensation Reggie Corbin. Many thanks to Austin and enjoy below:

After the Maryland game, DC Hardy Nickerson resigned for health-related reasons (health tending to go south when your conference foes not named Rutgers average 55 ppg). Is the main issue actually coaching or did he take the fall for defense that desperately needs a major talent overhaul?

I believe it is a little bit of both. Of course after a stretch like that some changes have to be made. Nickerson came in to Illinois with superb ties to the NFL, but watching his play calling on the defensive side of the ball left much to be desired. The passing defense was where this team struggled mightily, and something had to happen. In his first game calling the defensive plays, the Illini defense was marginally improved, as they didn’t give up 55 points (not a huge bar, I know, but this is life for an Illinois fan). An influx of talent next season and guys continuing to play better than they have early in the season will help this coaching staff build for the future.

While the defense has been a disaster, Illinois’ offense appears to be showing signs of life. Is last year’s decision to start mostly freshmen beginning to pay dividends on that side of the ball?

Again, it a yes and no answer. I am a firm believer in getting your young guys playing time when you can. You want them to see real game time, not just practice time. Any time you have freshmen getting Big Ten playing time you know they are getting solid reps in to help their future development. The bigger cause for the offensive resurgence, however, is the new offensive coordinator for the Illini, Rod Smith. Garrick McGee has been proven to be one of the worst OC’s in Illinois history. Reggie Corbin got a whopping 18 carries last season under McGee for an average of 4.3 yards per carry. Now, under Smith, Corbin has 105 carries for 9.1 yards per carry. Make no mistake, Corbin was not plagued by injuries in 2017. He ended up in McGee’s dog house and couldn’t escape. It is great to see Reggie’s output this year and many Illini fans, myself included, are looking to 2019 and the potential he has to be All-Big Ten.

Lovie Smith obviously walked into a major rebuild when he was hired and despite the defensive issues, I think there is progress being made. Will he be given a fairly long leash to try and turn this around or will the floor start loosening beneath his feet if a big jump isn’t made next year? What do you think is the expectation for next year that keeps him off the hot seat?

I think the Minnesota win has all but guaranteed his safety after this season. The big question mark will be 2019. If the Illini don’t see big strides next season, I think the rumblings will get louder and louder for a coaching change. Purely from a strategic perspective, this offseason is when you would like to be looking at a new coach. It appears there will be very few power five jobs open after this season, so the lllini would have a better pick of coaching talent after this season, but Smith has earned the benefit of the doubt with an increase in win totals and the incoming recruiting class. In 2019, I would expect it is bowl game or bust. Six wins is likely the floor for 2019, but five wins and no blowouts could secure 2020.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

OK, AJ Bush is a former Husker and left us on very good terms, so of course we’re curious. Following stops at Iowa Western and Virginia Tech, Bush landed in Champaign for his senior season and snagged the starting job, so here’s a couple of incredibly vague questions: How has he been received there? Do you like him?

I think Bush is very serviceable as the Illinois quarterback. I am no quarterback whisperer, but I do feel that his passing game has been lacking quite a bit. Last weekend, he showed what he could do in the air, going 18 for 25 for over 200 yards. I would be completely fine with this stat line for every game the rest of the season. Fan reception has been mixed, of course. Bush and his younger counterpart MJ Rivers appear to be the two sides of the coin. Bush runs the ball incredibly well, which can be a blessing and a curse at times, as he tends to revert to a run first mentality at the first sign of pressure. Rivers appears to be a better thrower, but not a great thrower. If we could combine the two and make some hybrid, Illinois would have a very strong quarterback presence. Alas, science is not there yet so we take the good with the bad, Bush’s performance last week likely cemented his starting role through the end of 2018, and it’s deserved at this point.

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

What in the serious hell has gotten into Reggie Corbin (averaging 11ypc since October)? Has it occurred to Lovie to give him the ball more than 11 times per game?? (Feel free not to start this weekend.)

Garrick McGee being fired has helped. Seriously, though, I’m not one to scream from the mountaintops that people need fired. This is their livelihood and they have families to support. That said, I offered to help the McGee’s pack following his ouster. McGee got the benefit of the doubt for his time with Lamar Jackson and was heralded as an offensive genius. Turns out, he wasn’t. His play calls were outdated, his arsenal included about three plays, he loved the five yard out route when the Illini sat at 3rd and 10, and couldn’t coach his way out of a pee wee game. Rod Smith showed in Arizona what he could do with running games, increasing Arizona’s rushing attack by nearly 50% in 2017. Smith is the real deal and players seem to love him. After the offensive improvements we have seen at Illinois this season, the state needs to build him a statue.

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

You’re about to take on the best 2-7 team in the country (sarcasm font) – what’s your prediction?

I sure would have much more enjoyed picking this game before Nebraska nearly toppled Ohio State. That game featured the Nebraska I expected to see under Frost. I am sure you feel the same way. Both teams are clearly rebuilding and both teams will give you moments of great play and moments that make you want to slam your head against a wall. Illinois will be in the most hostile environment they have been in all season so it will be interesting to see how they respond. Not to deflect, but I could see this game going either way. If Bush is able to pass the ball as well as he did last weekend, all bets are off. If I have to pick right now, I would say Nebraska wins, but it is a tight game that features little to no defense, 35-32.