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Photo by © Jeffrey Becker | 2019
Cal Football

Illinois Preview: When They're Good, They're Not Bad

December 29, 2019

Illinois football this year has been a tale of four seasons. 

The Illini (6-6) who face Cal (7-5) in the Redbox Bowl Monday at Levi’s Stadium had a quartet of streaks in head coach Lovie Smith’s fourth year in Champaign. They showed they can beat anybody and lose to anybody.

They opened with two straight victories over lesser foes Akron and UConn. A good start.

Then came a four-game losing streak that had the Illini followers calling for Smith’s head. He kept his noggin and the faithful lost their minds the next week when the Illini knocked off sixth-ranked Wisconsin on their homecoming game.

“When you lose four games in a row, it looks like everything is going terribly wrong,” Smith said at the Redbox Bowl press conference Friday. “I didn’t see that. We didn’t play well enough to win…..but there just some things we had to clean up.”

The Wisconsin victory started a four-game win streak, phase number three. The other end of that skein was a huge comeback win over Michigan State. Illinois trailed 31-10 entering the fourth period before rallying. That 37-34 victory made the Illini bowl-eligible, which is a good thing since they lost their final two, their fourth “streak” in the 12-game stretch. 

In two of the losses, including the 29-10 faceplant against Northwestern (3-9) in the season finale, Illinois was without starting quarterback Brandon Peters. 

© Jeffrey Becker | 2019
Brandon Peters

A grad transfer from Michigan, Peters sustained concussions against Minnesota Oct.5 and missed the next game against Michigan. He was hurt again against Iowa Nov. 16 and held out of the Northwestern game. 

He will play against Cal. 

His passing numbers are so-so, 130 completions in 238 attempts (54.6 percent) with 17 touchdowns, seven interceptions and 1,611 yards in 10 games. He has also run for 145 yards and three touchdowns. But Smith sees beyond the figures.

“Initially quarterbacks have to be able to pass the ball,” Smith said. “We like to play with an athletic quarterback, who can move the chains with his feet, too. But it’s a little bit more than that. Quarterbacks have to convince guys they can get the job done, ‘Follow me.’

“One thing about Brandon is that he is even keel, not too high, not too low, a confident player. We saw that the first time we brought him over for a visit. We thought he would be the perfect fit for what we are trying to do. He brings experience coming from a good program and playing at a high level. All of that experience contributed to where we are right now..”

Senior running back Reggie Corbin, who is Illinois’ leading rusher with 634 yards on 129 carries, will be happy to see Peters on the field again even though the QB doesn’t always follow the script.

“Most of the games, I kind of have no idea where the ball is going,” Corbin said.  “I just see him do something crazy and he completes it. I’m like, ‘Yeah, B.P. go crazy.’ 

“It’s good to have my main guy back. I tell him every day, ‘When in doubt, just hand it off.’ I have full confidence in him, man. I think him at the wheel of this team, couldn’t have a better driver.”

Corbin is not a bad driver himself. 

Patrick Gorski -- USA Today Sports
Reggie Corbin has a big hole to run through

“When he goes between the tackles and gets into the open fileld in one-one situations he has special moves and he’s been able to make guys miss,” Smith said. “He’s been very productive for us. A guy like that has a chance to finish up playing in front of a lot of people who haven’t seen him a whole lot.” 

The Illini use backs like Corbin more as runners and blockers than receivers. The top nine pass catchers are all either wide receivers or tight ends. Corbin has caught just three passes and his backup Dre Brown had eight receptions. 

The leading receiver is wideout Josh Imatorbhebhe who has 33 for 634 yards and nine touchdowns. The transfer from USC missed the season finale with an injury. Smith would give no specific updates on him -- or any of the other injured players other than Peters for that matter. 

But he talked as if he expected Imatorbhebhe to play.

“The winning streak Josh had an awful lot to do with it,” Smith said. “He made an awful lot of big plays. Running the offense the way we do, it opens up a lot of one-on-one situations with the pass. That combination (Peters to Imatorbhebhe)  worked an awful lot.”

Justice Williams, who three years ago was an Illinois linebacker, has started the last four games at tight end in place of Daniel Barker, who also plays a lot..

Injuries have also hit the offensive line, center Doug Kramer, who has started 27 straight games, had to leave the Northwestern game with what was described as a “significant leg injury”. Sophomore Kendrick Green, who has been the regular right guard, has been taking snaps at center. His snapping could be an issue.

Smith is known for his defensive prowess and after Illinois had one of the worst defenses in the country last year took over as his own defensive coordinator this season. The Illini improved significantly, after giving up 39.5 points and 508.3 yards per game a year ago, the respective numbers are 25.4 and 409.5.

Plus this year's Illini defense has recorded 22 sacks, 18 forced fumbles, 12 interceptions, and four defensive touchdowns.

Cal color commentator and former quarterback Mike Pawlawski described Illinois’ defense as a “typical Big Ten. They don’t do a lot, they just come after you and hit you in the mouth.”

Offensive tackle Jake Curhan agreed that the Illinois defense does not come with a lot of bells and whistles.

“They are not like a lot of teams in our conference,” Curhan said. “It’s less exotic, that’s for sure. They do a lot of the same stuff. And they are productive, they are really good at doing that same stuff 

“There definitely is some line movement after the ball is snapped, and that can make things difficult, depending on the play we’re running and what we’re trying to do on that play. They do, keep moving and get into the offensive lineman’s face. They know their stuff for sure. The linebackers are certainly good, they are not afraid to come up and hit us.”

David Butler -- USA Today Sports
Dele Harding (9) after an interception

The key is linebacker Dele Harding, the senior who is second in the country (I shouldn’t have to tell you who is first) with 147 total tackles. He also has three interceptions.

"First off he's a smart player; he gets it," Smith said. "And when guys are watching you, he does everything right, so he has everybody's attention. So knowing what to do and being a voice, that's good. But in the end when you start playing you need to play good football and no one has played better ball than Dele has, and it gets your attention a little bit more.”

Jake Hansen, another talented linebacker in Smith’s 4-3 defensive alignment, has missed the last three games with an injury. Again Smith was not definitive, but it’s a good bet he will play.

Defensive end Oluwole Betiku (6-3, 250) is a grad transfer from USC who was named third-team All-Big-Ten in his first year on campus.

Safety Sydney Brown has three interceptions, to lead a secondary that is short on experience (one senior in the top eight) but long on talent.

Like Cal, Illinois has an Australian punter. Blake Hayes averaged 44.8 yards per punt with just 13 touchbacks in 72 kicks. He was voted Big Ten punter of the year.

Brown is one of the better kick return men in the country. He averaged more than 25 yards per in his career.

“I think they play really well as a team, offense and defense and special teams,” Cal head coach Justin Wilcox said. “They play well together, And within those units, you can tell they are well-coached they know what they’re doing.”


Redbox Bowl Press Conference





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