Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

Know The Foe: A Closer Look at Illinois

By Brian Rosenthal

The way Mike Riley views things, Illinois is a perfect example of a team that’s building into the competition of an ultra-competitive Big Ten Conference.

The Illini, like many teams in the league, are trying to reach the bar set by Urban Meyer, among others.

Riley, the third-year Nebraska coach, has seen this situation before, when he coached at his alma mater, Oregon State.

A decade ago, Pete Carroll and USC got rolling and set a high bar in the then-Pac 10 Conference. The competition, Oregon State included, had to keep pace.

“All of the sudden,” Riley said, “you either had to rise up and get better, or get left in the dust. “

Second-year Illinois coach Love Smith, the former Chicago Bears coach, is doing his best to make sure his Illini are in the former category.

That’s likely why Illinois (2-1, 0-0 Big Ten) enters its Big Ten Conference opener Friday against Nebraska (2-2, 1-0) having started more true freshmen than any team in the nation – 10 on offense and defense, and an Australian punter on special teams.

“You know that’s where everybody in the league has to get better to do that, and so I think as we go, you'll see more and more teams being more and more competitive,” Riley said. “You’ve seen Indiana do that, you’re seeing Purdue do that this year. And so the competition will just rise, and that will be the case with Illinois.”

Of course, the Illini have already been a thorn in the side of Nebraska, rallying late two years ago to edge the Huskers 14-13 in Champaign. The Huskers have won the other three Big Ten meetings against the Illini in Lincoln.

While Nebraska has a short week to prepare for the unusual Friday night game – 7 p.m. on FS1 – the Illini, for the second year in a row, enter their game against the Huskers coming off a bye week.

But, it should also be noted Illinois has lost 14 of 16 games coming off a bye week, and is 13-25 after bye weeks since 1985.

Here’s a closer look at the Illini, coming off a 47-23 loss at South Florida on Sept. 15:

 

Illini on Offense

Make of this what you will: Three offensive linemen made their first career starts in the Illini’s season opener against Ball State – redshirt freshman Doug Kramer, sophomore Zeke Martin and sophomore Adam Solomon.

Yet no Illinois offensive lineman started in the same spot during Week One and Week Two. So, to say the Illini are stable up front would be wrong. To wit: senior Christian DiLauro’s streak of 31 straight starts ended when he didn’t start against Ball State.

Nebraska will have to prepare for two possible quarterbacks. Chayce Crouch has started all three games – he’s 32-of-62 passing with a touchdown and three interceptions, and averages 4.2 yards per carry – but Jeff George Jr. entered the second half of Illinois’ last game at USF and went 12-of-22 for 211 yards, with a touchdown and two interceptions. If his names sounds familiar, it should; he’s the son of former Illinois quarterback Jeff George Sr., a former No. 1 NFL Draft pick.

“We only saw the guy for maybe one play, so I think in general, as you’re getting ready, you have to be ready for what either one of them might bring, which is a little bit different,” Riley said. “We will prepare for either, what they have done or what they might do, or what might be in their history, and then hopefully be able to adjust to the quarterback or quarterbacks that might play in the game.”

The Illini count on a couple of freshman skill players – Mike Epstein at running back and Ricky Smalling at wide receiver – but the bell cow of the offense is longtime senior Mike Dudek, who missed the last two seasons with injury, and had hadn’t played in 981 days. He leads the team in both receptions (14) and receiving yards (158) this season.

Also of note: Sixteen FBS teams, three of them from the Big Ten, have yet to lose a fumble this season. Two of them are Illinois and Nebraska.

 

Illini on Defense

Junior outside linebacker Del’Shawn Phillips, a junior college transfer, ranks second in the Big Ten and ranks 16th among FBS teams with 10.7 tackles per game. He began the season with 16 tackles in a 24-21 victor over Ball State.

Freshman defensive end Bobby Roundtree has three sacks in three games, the most in the nation among true freshmen. Two of those sacks came in a Week Two victory over Western Kentucky, when he also forced a fumble.

Also of note, Illinois has three interceptions and averages 2.6 sacks per game, and against Western Kentucky scored as many points on defense as the Hilltoppers did on offense (seven).

“They’ve got great speed, that is something that shows up again,” Nebraska offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said. “I think that the defensive ends last year, that were veteran guys, gave us some trouble last year. The freshmen defensive ends they have this year are just as good. I don’t know if they are at the caliber of the two drafted guys from last year, but they have good speed all across the board.

“They’re not going to give you a tremendous amount of looks, but they will line up and hit you hard. They don’t get misaligned at all. They’re excellent in coverage and fill gaps well. It will be a good challenge. You have to be able to sustain drives, line up and make some plays against them.”

 

Illini on Special Teams

Illinois has blocked three kicks this season – two field goals and one PAT – through three games to lead the nation in blocked kicks per game. Utah State, Hawaii and South Florida also have blocked three kicks apiece, albeit through four games.

One of the Illini’s blocked kicks saved a victory. Jamal Milan, a 6-foot-3, 300-pound sophomore defensive lineman, blocked a potential game-tying field goal as time expired to preserve a 24-21 victory over Ball State to begin the season.

Also against Ball State, Dudek returned a punt 52 yards in the fourth quarter to set up the Illini’s game-winning score.

True freshman punter Blake Hayes, an Australian, averaged 46 yards on four punts in his debut against Ball State. He averages 39.6 yards per punt, sixth nationally among true freshmen.

Junior kicker Chase McLaughlin is 15-of-21 on field goals and 30-of-30 on extra points over the last two seasons. That includes a career-long 53-yard field goal last season against Minnesota.

Also of note, Illinois ranked first in the Big Ten and fifth among FBS teams in kickoff coverage, averaging 15 yards per return.

Reach Brian at brosenthal@huskers.com or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.

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