Two shocking comebacks last season may have saved Lovie Smith’s job. The Illini rallied from 13 points down in the second half to upset then-No. 6 UW (above) and, three weeks later, erased a 25-point deficit to win 37-34 at Michigan State. Smith is 15-34 through four seasons at Illinois, including 8-28 in Big Ten play. But he produced the program’s first postseason appearance since 2014. And even though a 6-7 final mark extended the Illini’s run of consecutive losing seasons to eight, their four Big Ten wins matched Smith’s output from his first three seasons.
BIG MAN ON CAMPUS
Junior safety Sydney Brown tied for the team lead with three interceptions last season and was second with 88 tackles. Part of Illinois’ 27-point outburst in the fourth quarter at Michigan State included Brown, named a third-team All-Big Ten pick by the coaches, returning a pick 76 yards for a score.
BITS AND PIECES
Wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe had nine touchdown receptions as a junior, accounting for nearly half of the Illini’s scores through the air. Imatorbhebhe averaged 19.2 yards per catch. … Illinois has some big holes to fill on defense, namely linebacker Dele Harding and defensive end Oluwole Betiku. Those two combined for 28 tackles for loss a year ago. … One key returnee on that side of that ball is linebacker Jake Hansen, who forced seven fumbles, the most in the Big Ten, despite missing the final four games of the season with a back injury.
Can Illinois’ offense carry the load?
Considering the key personnel losses on defense, senior quarterback Brandon Peters and Co. may have to light up the scoreboard in 2020. Peters had 18 touchdown passes and nine interceptions while throwing for 1,884 yards season, but the transfer from Michigan completed only 55.4 percent of his passes. Led by Imatorbhebhe, junior Donny Navarro and Ricky Smalling, Peters has some options at wide receiver. The tight end combo of Daniel Barker and Luke Ford, a transfer from Georgia, also should provide a security blanket for Peters. And while Illinois has plenty of experience up front, it will have to find a way to replace workhorse running back Reggie Corbin. One option at tailback is Mike Epstein, who sustained a torn ACL in the 2019 opener against Akron.
1 | Illinois’ Big Ten rank in turnover margin (plus-10) last season. The Illini generated Big Ten highs in turnovers gained (28) and fumble recoveries (16).