Once again it is December and the Illinois Fighting Illini football team is at home resting without a bowl game to prepare for. Such is the case for a team that went 4-8.
It was the third straight year that Lovie Smith’s team didn’t make a bowl game and the fourth season in a row overall without a bowl game.
But, that didn’t deter AD Josh Whitman from investing more in Smith’s future. After the season finale, Whitman announced a two-year extension to Smith’s contract.
So, how did Whitman get to that decision without being laughed out of the room? What was the good, the bad and the ugly?
Let’s look back at the season that was.
Hiring Rod Smith as offensive coordinator was a good, if not great move by Smith. His offense fit the players who were in the system like a glove and the offense sprung on to the scene as a dangerous group for opponents to worry about.
Illinois’ scoring averaged just 11 points, they were second in the Big Ten in rushing yards behind only Wisconsin and senior quarterback A.J. Bush finally showcased what many thought he would out of high school.
Junior running back Reggie Corbin was scary good this season, averaging 90.4 yards per game and rushing for over 1,000 yards on the season. Add in Mike Epstein’s 411 yards in just 7 games and Bush’s 733 yards and 8 touchdowns on the ground and you have a blueprint for future success for Smith’s offense.
Of course, Bush leaving after this season will change things a bit, but the overall blueprint was successful in its first year and that can really help transform a program.
For all the success the offense had on the stat sheet, one piece of news wasn’t good and that was Illinois inability to extend drives consistently on offense.
The Illini ranked 12th in the Big Ten in third down conversion rate. On the season they converted at just a 34.5 percent rate.
Amazingly, it is the best mark of any team under Lovie Smith, but still far below an acceptable rate if you want to win more football games than you lose.
Given Illinois overall offensive improvement this may seem like nitpicking, but this is the next step this team needs to take on the field to be even more successful and to help that defense.
How do you make the massive offensive jump Illinois did and still miss a bowl game? You have one of the worst defenses in the country, that’s how.
Illinois gave up an average of 39.4 points per game, which was dead last in the Big Ten and 124th out of 130 in the country. Further down the numbers showed a defense that was last in the B1G in rushing, total defense (508.3) and 13th in passing defense.
It was brutal watching this defense in 2018, so much so that Hardy Nickerson decided to resign for health reasons after allowing 63 points and 465 yards rushing in a 30-point loss to Maryland.
The defense gave up 30-plus points in seven of 12 games on the year, leading to losses in six of those games.
Smith took over the play calling for this defense after Nickerson’s departure, but things didn’t get much better. That indicates there’s a problem with the scheme, the players being recruited or both.
Clearly this offseason must be focused on finding a coach and set of players ready to step up to the plate. After all, it will be year three in the defense for a lot of players who got major reps in 2017, let alone this past season.
Whitman doubles down on Lovie Smith as Illini HC
A 4-8 season for the Illinois Fighting Illini was capped off by a disappointing loss to in-state rival Northwestern. For many people it signaled what could be the end of the Lovie Smith era in Champaign.
On Sunday the speculation came to a quick end, as AD Josh Whitman did the unexpected. Rather than announcing Smith would be let go just three years in to his tenure, Whitman doubled down on him with a two-year contract extension.
Smith will remain in Champaign through the 2023 season, extending the original six-year deal by another two years.
“This extension demonstrates my belief in Lovie Smith, his staff, and the plan they have for the future success of Illinois Football,” said Whitman. “I have studied our program extensively, and I see steady progress, both in the development of our current players and the talent we are adding to our roster. To date, we have remained one of the youngest teams in college football, with only nine seniors and nearly 80 freshmen and sophomores. As our players grow in strength, skill, and experience, more wins will follow.”
It was a surprising decision from the outside, because the numbers over the last three years have been brutal.
Whitman is aware that 4-8 seasons are not what anyone is hoping for. He also pointed out correctly that the youth movement simply needs more time to work itself through the system.
In a college football era that is increasingly impatient, Whitman is doing the rare thing and allowing a coach to rebuild the program from the bottom up before judging it.
“We recognize that our work is far from finished, with improvement needed in every phase of our program’s development, but our plan is sound and our resolve is stronger than ever,” Whitman continued in his press release. “As I have said on many occasions, stability and continuity are key to building a foundation that will yield long-term success.
“With the opening of our new facility next summer, and the continued efforts of our staff and student-athletes, the success we all covet is within reach. I applaud Coach Smith, his staff, and our team for their commitment and steady progress, and I stand ready, as we all should, to help them in whatever way possible to continue building upon their momentum.”
For Smith and his Illini program, that watershed mark will be in year five, not year three.
So, how will Lovie Smith repay this loyalty? It starts by identifying the good and bad. We’ll start with the bad.
Chief amongst the problems for the Illini? Try the defensive side of the ball.
During the nearly three-year tenure of defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson, the Illini defense never turned a positive corner.
Year one was understandable, given the crazy offseason that led to Lovie Smith’s late hire and thus late installation of anything and everything.
Year two saw the Illini basically say “screw it” on both sides of the ball and a youth movement was afoot.
Year three? Well, it was the final straw as Nickerson left the program following a dreadful performance against Maryland in a 63-33 loss in College Park. He sited health concerns in the abrupt leave he took, while Smith had made it clear following the loss that Nickerson wasn’t going to be fired and no decisions on any staff would be made until the offseason.
Smith must find a way to get more out of this group, because even Nickerson’s absence did little to turn things around in-season. He took over the play-calling duties over the final four games and Illinois still gave up an average of 43.0 points per game.
What then saved Smith’s job? It could have been his hire of offensive coordinator Rod Smith.
Illinois offensive output was amazing considering where this team was just one year ago.
They even survived issues at quarterback and injuries around the pass and run game throughout the year. After averaging 15.4 points per game in 2017, the Illini upped their scoring over 10 points per game to 26.0.
It was only good enough for 11th in the league, but it was a vast improvement in just one season’s time. Illinois scored fewer than 20 points in just four games this season, while it managed to top 20 points in just four games in 2017.
Senior A.J. Bush gave the Illini their best look at QB, while also allowing freshman M.J. Rivers to get major experience in Smith’s offense going forward.
Junior running back Reggie Corbin was a breath of fresh air in Smith’s attack. He topped the 1,000-yard mark on just 128 carries, averaging a sick 8.5 yards per carry. It was the first 1,000-yard rushing season by an Illini running back in eight years.
Add in a healthy Mike Epstein and the Illini had the pieces it needed to be productive on offense.
It showed as the run game improved by nearly 140 yards per game and averaged a healthy 243 yards per game — a mark that was only topped by Wisconsin within the Big Ten.
Whitman clearly saw the offensive improvement and believed there was more where that came from. He penned a letter to fans alluding to as much.
“No one is satisfied with our season, least of all those of us directly involved in the day-to-day work of Illinois Football,” said Whitman. “We endured several lopsided losses and expected to win more games. After studying the season, however, there were undoubtedly signs of progress.”
Now it is on Smith to make his boss look smart in the face of three years of losing.
Predicting the 2018 Illinois Fighting Illini season game-by-game
We’re nearing game week and that means it is time to gather all the intel possible and make the best decisions possible…because it’s time to put our money where our mouths are.
Yes, the annual tradition of Illinois Fighting Illini season predictions is back. Yes, we’re also going to break down the season in game-by-game fashion.
No, you won’t see it in the written form. Instead, we’re going 21st century and giving you our publisher, Andrew Coppens, thoughts in video format.
The Illini went first (no coincidence to alphabetical order), so you can follow along by subscribing to our YouTube channel as well.
Illini look to fresh jerseys to help reboot football program
Illinois reaches to its successful past in hopes of sparking interest in struggling football program of today. It means new uniforms for the football program.
Nothing says trying to shed a bad image like rebooting your jersey and helmet looks. When you’re the Illinois Fighting Illini and you’ve compiled a whopping 5-19 overall record and just two Big Ten wins in the last two years, a reboot is probably a good idea.
On Friday morning, the Illini announced exactly that, keeping the school colors and even the Gray Ghost uniforms they have worn to pay homage to the Galloping Ghost himself, Harold “Red” Grange. The new uniforms feature a much simpler look and a more defined block “I” on the v of the neck.
For you old-timers out there, these uniforms are likely to look very familiar to you. That’s because they harken back to the Illini glory days of the Dick Butkus era in the 1960’s.
One of the biggest additions to the uniform combinations is that of a re-designed orange helmet. Gone is the metallic look, replaced by a matted finish and a color that more accurately fits the uniform color as well.
Illinois will begin wearing the new gear for the home opener on Sept. 1 against Kent State and of course will begin to be available for purchase (blue only apparently) this fall as well.
As for the design, I like the simplified look and feel of the jersey. Illinois has a color scheme that stands out in the Big Ten, so why try to hide it. Instead, they are embracing history and moving forward to hopefully more success.
With all the momentum off the field, hopefully Love Smith and crew can deliver some of that same momentum on the field. We’ll have an idea about that when the Illini hold an open practice tomorrow, April 7.
Lovie Smith hits home run with Rod Smith’s hire as OC
Lovie Smith hires prolific spread offensive coordinator Rod Smith in hopes of jump-starting a stagnant Illinois Fighting Illini offense.
Just one day after two former starting quarterbacks announced their departure from the Illinois Fighting Illini program, the Illini went out and announced a huge hire.
On Friday afternoon, head coach Lovie Smith announced the hire of former Arizona offensive coordinator to the same position for the Illini.
“Rod Smith brings terrific and exciting offensive experience to our staff at Illinois,” Lovie Smith said. “His background and development of dual-threat quarterbacks and multiple-threat offenses is the direction we are going here. Rod has developed explosive quarterback play and offensive performance at each of his coaching stops.”
It was huge get for the head coach because Cam Thomas, who is a true dual threat quarterback is literally the only scholarship quarterback on the roster until the fall.
Smith comes to Illinois after leading one of the most explosive offenses in the country at Arizona. Smith helped lead an offense that averaged 41.3 points (5th nationally), 309.3 rushing yards, 180.2 passing yards and 489.5 total yards (12th nationally) per game. Wildcat quarterback Khalil Tate rushed for 1,411 yards (9.2 yards per carry), while completing 62 percent of his passes for 1,591 passing yards with 14 touchdowns.
Most importantly, Smith has an extensive background as a quarterbacks coach, and that background will be tested by the rawness of Cam Thomas’ game and two incoming recruits this fall.
He’s had success not just with one quarterback in the fold at Arizona as well, working with Anu Solomon for three seasons prior to Tate taking over at quarterback. Solomon completed his three-year playing career with the third-most passing touchdowns and fourth-most passing yards in UA history. In 2014, Solomon threw for 2,793 yards and 28 touchdowns, with only nine interceptions.
That kind of production and long-term output at quarterback is sorely needed for the Illini to turn things around. Just how fast can Smith mold Thomas? He’ll get a really good opportunity with a cleared quarterback room this spring.