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Reviewing the 2020 Illinois Fighting Illini

Illinois may have found a quarterback and running back in their victory over Rutgers last week.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 14 Illinois at Rutgers Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

COVID-19 has certainly scrambled Illinois’ football season thus far, with the Illini having to start a different quarterback each week. In the season opener, Wisconsin throttled Illinois 45-7. Illinois’ only points came on a second quarter fumble return by sophomore linebacker Tarique Barnes that cut the Badger lead to 14-7. But Wisconsin score twice in the closing seconds of the first half to snuff out any chances by the Illini to pull off the upset. Wisconsin would outgain Illinois 430-218 on the day, and Badger redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz completed 20 of 21 passes for 248 yards and five touchdowns. Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters wasn’t nearly so productive, completing 8 of 19 passes for 87 yards. A surprising stat was that that Peters ended up outrushing everybody else on both teams, gaining 75 yards on seven carries.

But Peters hasn’t played since that game due to his COVID-19 diagnosis, though he could return this week. Sophomore Matt Robinson started against Purdue, but was injured on the first series and was replaced by fourth-stringer Coran Taylor. Purdue led 31-10 after three quarters, but Taylor led a comeback that came up eight yards short of tying the game in the closing minutes. Taylor then started in a 41-14 blowout loss to Minnesota. Taylor completed just six of 17 passes for 106 yards, 52 of which came on a long touchdown pass to Josh Imatorbhebhe.

Last week, redshirt freshman Isaiah Williams emerged from quarantine to lead Illinois to a 23-20 victory at Rutgers. Williams earned Big Ten freshman of the week honors by rushing for a school record 192 yards and a touchdown, averaging 6.2 yards per carry. He also completed seven of 18 passes for 104 yards. This week, Brandon Peters is apparently ready to return, according to reports, but Williams’ performance last week is giving Lovie Smith a reason to think hard about who’ll be the starting quarterback. I suspect you may see both quarterbacks, especially if whomever starts ends up struggling. My temptation is to say that Williams will wind up being the starter, for what it’s worth.

Running back Chase Brown exploded last week with a 131 yard performance against Rutgers. The transfer from Western Michigan seemed to be overlooked the first three games of the season, but now appears to be the top back for the Illini with a 7.2 yards per carry average. Mike Epstein is back from last season’s injury; he’s rushed for 228 yards and three touchdowns, averaging 5.4 yards per carry. Senior Josh Imatorbhebhe leads the wide receivers with 11 catches for 144 yards and a touchdown. Junior tight end Daniel Barker is second with nine catches for 132 yards.

Illinois’ defense ranks near the bottom of the Big Ten is just about every category: tenth in scoring defense (34.3 pts. per game), 13th in total defense (462 yards per game), 11th in rush defense (189.5 yards per game) and last in pass defense (273 yards per game). Senior middle linebacker Jake Hansen leads the Illini with 37 tackles and two forced fumbles. Senior safety Tony Adams moved from cornerback into the starting lineup and is second with 28. Senior defensive end Owen Carney has three sacks this season while sophomore reserve cornerback Devon Witherspoon has two interceptions this season.

In the Scott Frost era, the two Illinois/Nebraska games have been high scoring affairs; the Huskers have won both, but have given up 69 points (not-so-nice) to the Illini. It would seem this week’s game probably will be lower scoring, as Illinois has only scored 68 points in four games.

Below, you’ll find the original summertime preview of the Illinois Fighting Illini.

Last season, I took some abuse in the CornNation comments for my prediction that Lovie Smith would move Illinois out of the Big Ten’s West basement and into a bowl game. And to be honest, after the Illini lost to Eastern Michigan, it sure looked like I was an idiot. But then Illinois won four out of their last six games (including upsets of Wisconsin and Michigan State) to finish fourth in the west and play Cal in the Redbox Bowl at the 49ers stadium in Santa Clara, CA.

So I got that right. What I didn’t get right was the quarterback situation, as I thought five-star freshman Isaiah Williams (5’10” 180 lbs.) would be the starting quarterback. Williams played only sparingly in four games (completing only three of ten passes with an interception), preserving his redshirt. Instead, it was Michigan transfer Brandon Peters (6’5” 220 lbs.) seizing the quarterback job. Peters completed 55% of his passes for 1,864 yards and 18 touchdowns with eight interceptions. He also rushed for 213 yards and three touchdowns, showing much more mobility than he ever showed at Michigan. Sophomore Matt Robinson (6’1” 190 lbs.) was the primary backup last season, completing 54.5% of his passes in starts against Michigan and Northwestern when Peters was out with a concussion. Williams played some receiver in the Redbox Bowl, which might be a clue that Illinois might be looking at a “Slash”/Wildcat role for Williams in 2020.

After senior running back Ra’Von Bonner (5’11” 215 lbs.) announced he was sitting out this season due to COVID-19, only junior Mike Epstein (6’0” 205 lbs.) returns at running back this season. Epstein has averaged 6.4 yards per carry over his career, but has suffered season-ending injuries each of the last three seasons; last year, he only was able to play in the season opener, earning a redshirt. In 13 career games, he’s rushed for 802 yards and six touchdown. Eastern Michigan transfer Chase Brown (5’11” 205 lbs.) rushed for 352 yards as a freshman at EMU, averaging 5.0 yards per carry. True freshman Reggie Love (5’10” 195 lbs.), a four-star recruit, should also see playing time.

The Illini receiving corps received quite an influx of talent last season, led by Southern Cal graduate transfer Josh Imatorbhebhe (6’2” 215 lbs.). Imatorbhebhe caught 33 passes for 634 yards and nine touchdowns last season as a junior. Junior slot receiver Donny Navarro (5’11” 185 lbs.) caught 27 passes for 346 yards and two touchdowns. Graduate transfer Desmond Dan (6’3” 190 lbs.) caught 37 passes for 491 yards and three touchdowns two years ago at New Mexico State. Junior tight end Daniel Barker (6’4” 250 lbs.) caught 16 passes for 273 yards and four touchdowns last season, but could be passed up by Georgia transfer Luke Ford (6’6” 260 lbs.) unless the Illini decide to go with more double tight-end sets. Or maybe go really jumbo with Imatorbhebhe’s brother Daniel Imatorbhebe (6’4” 240 lbs.), who also transferred from Southern Cal. Daniel has missed the last two seasons due to injuries, but did have four touchdowns and over 400 yards receiving in 2015.

Four starters return on the offensive line and added 1-AA All-American Blake Jeresaty (6’2” 290 lbs.) from Woffford to fill in the hole at right guard. Senior right tackle Alex Palczweski (6’6” 300 lbs.) was a third-team all-Big Ten honoree last season. Every presumed starter on the Illinois offensive line won their starting job as a freshman, and 2020 should be the payofff year with four seniors on the line. Junior left guard Kendrick Green (6’4” 310 lbs.) is the only two year starter on the line.

On defense, Illinois improved quite a bit with Lovie Smith calling the defenses, going from the worst defense in the Big Ten to being ranked 11th in most categories. That may not seem like much until you consider that Illinois gave up nearly 100 yards and over 13 points less per game on average last season versus 2018. But this year with only five returning defensive starters, it’s probably a rebuilding year on defense.

Especially on the defensive line where all four starters need to be replaced. Senior defensive end Isaiah Gay (6’3” 240 lbs.) has started eight games over his career, while the Illini gains graduate transfer defensive tackle Chinedu Udeogu (6’4” 275 lbs.) from Cal as well as 1-AA preseason All-American Roderick Perry (6’2” 300 lbs.) from South Carolina State. Still, that’s an awful lot of inexperience up front.

At linebacker, the Illini will miss Dele Harding at middle linebacker who went from being mostly a reserve his first three years to a third-team All-American with 153 tackles as a senior. But linebackers Jake Hansen (6’1” 225 lbs.) and linebacker Milo Eifler (6’2” 225 lbs.) return for their senior seasons. Hansen is a two year starter who was third on the team with 72 tackles last season, despite missing four games due to injury. Hansen should slide into Harding’s middle linebacker role in 2020. Eifler broke out last season with 63 tackles after spending two seasons playing sparingly at Washington.

The secondary returns two starters, but picks up some intriguing newcomers. Junior free safety Sydney Brown (6’0” 210 lbs.) is a two year starter that earned third-team all-Big Ten honors last season with 88 tackles, highest of any returning defender. Senior cornerback Nate Hobbs (6’0” 190 lbs.) has been a three year starter who had 67 tackles a team-leading ten pass breakups last season. Miami (FL) transfer safety Derrick Smith (6’2” 200 lbs.) and Louisville transfer TreSean Smith (6’1” 210 lbs.) could contribute immediately as well as four-star redshirt freshman Marquez Beason (5’11” 185 lbs.), who was poised to contribute until he tore his ACL last August. This could be an improved unit despite the inexperience.

From what I’m seeing in Champaign, Illinois continues to make progress in the Big Ten’s west division. Frankly, while the West division doesn’t have the star power of Ohio State and Penn State at the top, it’s MUCH better at the bottom than the East. Because of that, I can’t say that Illinois won’t finish at the bottom of the division in 2020. I can say, however, that the Illini could be better than last year’s bowl squad.