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Illini Football

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.

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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.

Andy Coppens is the Founder and Publisher of Talking10. He's a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and has been covering college sports in some capacity since 2008. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyOnFootball

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Illini Football

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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Illini Football

Illini have no choice but Cam Thomas at QB now

Two quarterbacks announce transfers within a matter of hours on Wednesday, leaving the Illini with only Cam Thomas on scholarship.

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The Illinois Fighting Illini went in to this offseason with three quarterbacks who started games in 2017. It took just one day for that to completely change though.

On Wednesday night, redshirt junior quarterback Jeff George Jr. announced he would be graduating in the spring with a degree in Management and will transfer from the program as a graduate transfer. He will have two seasons of eligibility left wherever she goes.

Chayce Crouch then announced that he was retiring from football period after an injury-riddled career at Illinois.

So, what was once a potentially three-man race for the starting quarterback job just became a one-man race and the winner by default is sophomore quarterback Cam Thomas.

He’ll have a lot of work to do this offseason though, because his opening campaign was a rough one on the stat sheet. Thomas completed just 42.4 percent of his passes (28 of 66) for 375 yards and zero touchdowns to five interceptions.

In four games he also rushed for 233 yards and a touchdown. Thomas was clearly much more comfortable as a runner than a thrower in the Big Ten.

The question is, will the lessons learned in those four games as a starter be enough to push him in to being the guy that turns things around for the stagnant Illini offense.

Thomas is easily the leader in the clubhouse given he’s the only quarterback on the roster with any experience, but he will be joined in the fall by 2018 signee M.J. Rivers. He is a 6-4, 213-pound dual threat quarterback that was ranked as the No. 26 dual threat QB in the country.

It means the Illini will go in to spring ball with just one scholarship quarterback on the roster and in to the 2018 season with just two scholarship quarterbacks at all.

Lovie Smith now has to trust in Thomas and pray he’s the answer they’ve been looking for or it may be curtains for his time at the helm of the Illini program.

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Badgers football

10 things to know about Wisconsin Badgers vs. Illinois Fighting Illini

Illinois and Wisconsin square off in the Illini’s homecoming game. Here are some interesting facts to know about the Badgers and Illini matchup

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It’s Homecoming in Champaign, where they claim to have formally started the tradition almost all colleges participate in these days. However, the Badgers are looking to spoil the Illini’s party and continue an undefeated start to the 2017 season.

While on paper this seems to be a big mismatch, what do the deep stats and tidbits about this series tell us?

Let’s look in to the 10 things to know about the Badgers vs. Illini for this Saturday’s contest.

 

1: Wisconsin is No. 1 in the Big Ten in run defense

This could be a big advantage for the Badgers on Saturday afternoon in Champaign. UW is giving up just 88 yards per game on the ground this season, which tops the Big Ten. Wisconsin is just one of two Big Ten and nine teams nationally giving up fewer than 100 yards per game. Only Alabama, Washington, TCU and Georgia are ahead of the Badgers in run defense so far this season. Meanwhile, Illinois comes in to this game dead last in the Big Ten in rushing offense at 118.7 yards per game.

2: That is the number of quarterbacks Illinois have been using for most of the 2017 season.

For a large part of the season it was Chayce Crouch and Jeff George Jr., but with a youth movement all over the field, last week the Illini took the training wheels off of true freshman quarterback Cam Thomas. After George struggled to start the game, Thomas came on in the hopes of sparking something. That didn’t really happen, as Thomas finished the game just 2 of 4 passing for 33 yards and an interception. He did add 79 yards on 10 carries on the ground, but he’s got to add something in the pass game if Illinois has a shot against the Badgers. However, George did finish last week 18-of-23 for 128 yards and one TD…so maybe the two-quarterback system could work going forward?

3: That is the number of times opponents’ drives that have started inside UW territory have resulted in a touchdown

Wisconsin’s defense has been stellar all season, but perhaps the most impressive part of what the Badgers are doing is their ability to come up big with their backs against the wall. Opponents have started in UW territory 10 times this season, with only three of those possessions ending in touchdowns. Last weekend, Maryland started at Wisconsin’s 5-yard line and got nowhere, settling for a field goal.

4: Illinois ranks 4th in the country in blocked kicks this season

If there’s a way for the Illini to change things up in what appears to be a mismatch on paper, a good way would be getting a turnover or something spectacular on special teams. One area that could be helpful to them is in their kick coverage teams, as they’ve blocked three kicks already this season and the Badgers have had a few blocked on them as well. Only Hawaii (5), Army (4) and Utah State (4) have more blocked kicks on the year. Illinois’ .43 kicks blocked per game rank fourth nationally, and you can bet they know UW has shown weakness in this area already this season.

5: That is the number of receiving touchdowns for UW wide receiver Quintez Cephus this season

After seeing early playing time as a freshman last year, there’s been no sophomore slump for Cephus. Instead, the Badgers have found a go-to wide receiver and a touchdown machine. Cephus leads the Badgers with five touchdowns on the year and ranks tied for fourth in the Big Ten for receiving touchdowns on the year. He’s only two off the lead shared by D.J. Moore of Maryland and Tyler Johnson of Minnesota. Cephus also leads the team with 25 receptions (tied with TE Troy Fumagalli) for 448 yards as well as the five touchdowns.

6: Illinois top running back averages 6.1 yards per carry, but will he play?

While the Illini offense has struggled to get going, one man jumped off the page early and that was true freshman running back Mike Epstein. He leads the team with 346 yards and has three touchdowns on the ground. Epstein has put up those numbers on just 57 attempts in five games played to date. But, he has missed the last two games and there’s been little word on if Epstein will be back in the lineup against the Badgers. If so, look for RaVon Bonner to be the main running back for the Illini.

7: It took just 7 games for UW freshman running back Jonathan Taylor to hit the 1,000-yard mark, tying the true freshman record for fastest to 1,000 yards in a season. 

Just how good has Taylor been? He cracked the 1,000-yard mark before 44 different FBS teams have even hit that mark. Taylor comes in to the Illinois game with 1,112 yards and 11 touchdowns on the year. He’s first in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game, rushing yards and is the only Big Ten rusher in double digits on the TD front. Illinois run defense has been brutal all season, as Lovie Smith’s team ranks dead last in rush defense — giving up just over 210 yards per game to opponents. So, we have a massive advantage for Wisconsin’s run defense and offense. I’m sensing a pattern that may be established in this game.

8: Wisconsin is going for victory No. 8 in a row over the Illini on Saturday

UW currently owns a seven-game win streak in this series, including three straight in Champaign. Wisconsin’s former house of horrors has been kind for the most part recently, as the Badgers have won 5 of the last 6 games in Memorial Stadium as well. Illinois’ longest win streak in the series has been six games, but they led the overall series until the Badgers started this current win streak. Right now the series sits 40-336-7 in favor of the Badgers.

9: Illinois is converting on 90 percent of its red zone opportunities in 2017

That’s an impressive rate on paper, putting the Illini third in the Big Ten in conversion rate on offense. However, the devil is in the details here, as only 10 of the 18 converted possessions have ended in touchdowns and the full six points. Illinois rate of 50 percent for touchdown conversions is 13th in the B1G, while the eight converted field goals puts the Illini second only to Michigan this season. Combine that news with the fact that Wisconsin only allows opponents to convert TD’s inside the red zone at 27.7 percent (tops in the Big Ten), and that’s another not-so-good news scenario for the hosts on homecoming.

10: Wisconsin is 10-1 in true road games under Paul Chryst

The Badgers’ lone loss on the road came against Michigan last season, a 14-10 decision. If you include neutral site games, the Badgers are an impressive 13-3 away from Camp Randall Stadium under Chryst. Illinois is not Michigan in terms of quality to say the least, but it should be worth noting that UW seems to have also played better on the road than at home so far this season as well. So far, the Badgers won 40-6 over BYU and 38-17 over Nebraska, breaking the Huskers’ 20-game night win streak inside Memorial Stadium.

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