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Illinois Fighting Illini vs. Northwestern Wildcats: Previews, Predictions and Prognostications

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Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern Wildcats

When: Sat. Nov. 26, 2016; 12 p.m. ET
Where: Evanston, Ill.; Ryan Field (47,130)
TV: BTN
All-Time Series: Illinois leads 55-49-5
Last Meeting: Northwestern won 24-14 (2015)
Line: Northwestern (-15.5)

The last time Northwestern needed a win in its final game to reach bowl eligibility ended up being Trevor Siemian’s last game at Northwestern. Actually, the current Denver Broncos quarterback did not play that game, having torn his ACL the week before against Purdue.

The Wildcats had to rely on backup quarterbacks to try and lead them to victory and the energy — especially considering the students are home for the annual rivalry game and Illini fans invaded Ryan Field as opponents are want to do at the Cats’ home — was just not there. The Wildcats fell behind big early, came back and then fell apart again, ending a disappointing season a game short.

Illinois walked off the field with that coveted sixth win, saving Tim Beckman’s job for at least one more year.

Northwestern’s season started with that lack of energy and bitter disappointment. Going 0-2 put the team in a big hole. But here the Wildcats are — a win from bowl eligibility needing to beat their (struggling) archrivals to clinch that coveted bowl trip and salvage something from a season that has been equal parts frustrating and exhilarating.

And Illinois is getting served to them on something of a platter.

The Illini have struggled on both ends of the field. They have lacked the same scoring punch Illinois fans have been known for the last few years. Lovie Smith has struggled to shift the team’s mentality this year.

Illinois has lost much of its offensive punch, averaging fewer than 20 points per game. But the Illini can still put some yards on the board against a defense that is unprepared.

Rivalry games have a way of changing the equation, though. And anything may go when the teams meet at Ryan Field this time around.

1 Burning Question: Can Northwestern attack without Austin Carr?

Clayton Thorson has had an up-and-down sophomore campaign for the Wildcats. He is unquestionably the team’s quarterback moving forward, but his distribution has been inconsistent at best. His accuracy has come and gone throughout the year.

Thorson at times looks like a stud quarterback, able to make throws into tight windows and accurately across the field. And then at other times he skips passes underneath.

For Thorson, his security blanket in Austin Carr has bailed him out of so many issues. Unfortunately for Northwestern, it’s not a sure thing the team will have him this weekend after he took a nasty hit (called targeting) and left the game.

Pat Fitzgerald said during his Monday press conference that Carr is day to day with a further update coming Thursday. Assumedly he is in whatever concussion protocol Northwestern has.

Carr has 80 catches for 1,170 yards this season, including 12 touchdowns. He averages more than 100 yards receiving per game. Thorson looks to Carr even when he is not open and Carr somehow makes the catch.

How will Northwestern’s offense look without that safety valve? That is a big question if he is unable to go.

The Wildcats have some other solid receivers — Andrew Scanlan, Solomon Vault and even Justin Jackson have found a niche in the pass game. But Carr is the one that makes it all go.

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2 Key Stats

–213.8: Illinois gives up 213.8 rushing yards per game this year as the team’s defense has really struggled. Northwestern is a big running team though. Justin Jackson has made a living wearing down and breaking down defenses in the long course of a game. The Illini will have to decrease this number to have a shot against Northwestern.

— -6.2: Northwestern’s net yards per game is 6.2 yards per game. Teams are outgaining the Wildcats on a per game basis, which is odd considering the team’s defensive solidity this season and some of the offensive strengths the team began to show.

3 Key Players

Malik Turner, Illinois WR: Northwestern’s secondary has struggled at time this year. Injuries have certainly depleted the group talent wise. And so the Wildcats are always on guard against a big passing game. Even with the Illini’s passing troubles, Turner is a dangerous weapon with 37 catches for 548 yards and four touchdowns this season.

Flynn Nagel, Northwestern WR/PR: Flynn Nagel has not had a big break in the punt game since the Iowa game. Teams know to avoid the speedster. With Austin Carr likely hampered, at least a little bit, Northwestern is going to want to get Nagel the ball more in space to run and cause havoc in the secondary. Punt to Nagel at your own risk too.

Carroll Phillips, Illinois DE: Northwestern’s biggest weakness at this point is the offensive line. Whenever Clayton Thorson has struggled, it is because the offensive line does not give him enough time to throw or he is getting chased around. The Illini will need to get a good pass rush and Phillips has done that with eight sacks and 17.0 tackles for a loss.

4 Staff Predictions

Andy: Northwestern 38-10
Dave: Northwestern 34-7
Phil H.: Northwestern 32-17
Philip R.: Northwestern 28-10
Zach: Northwestern 28-10

Philip Rossman-Reich is a Northwestern alumnus and former contributor Lake The Posts. He also writes for Orlando Magic Daily and The Step Back.

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Illini Football

Illinois Fighting Illini 2018 Season Review: The good, the bad and the ugly

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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. 

The Good

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. 

The Bad

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.

The Ugly

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. 

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Illini Football

Whitman doubles down on Lovie Smith as Illini HC

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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. 

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Predicting the 2018 Illinois Fighting Illini season game-by-game

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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. 

Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter and Facebook. Also don’t forget to join in the conversation below and let us know your thoughts on the season and your predictions too! 

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Illini Football

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.

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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.

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