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2020 Illinois Fighting Illini Football Preview & Predictions

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The best Fighting Illini squad since 2007?

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Illinois
THE ULTIMATE SHOWDOWN!
Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

In a fit of despair on Monday, I took to the Fanshots and accidentally crafted the perfect introduction to Illinois Fighting Illini week here on Off Tackle Empire.

feeling massive regret for missing my window to escape to canada

but mostly feeling fuckin empty. pretty jarring for someone to grow up in america in the 90’s only to see all the promise that the future allegedly held here get partially demolished with the remainder being exposed as a gross exaggeration if not outright lies.

with everyone failing to protect working class americans, that hilariously bloated defense budget passed overwhelmingly and swiftly.

there’s just no mechanism for lowering the max attainable amount of power here, and nobody with the power to build a less shitty country has any incentive to do so

we’ll be struggling with this fucking plague and a us passport won’t get me anywhere, so i can’t even go that far to distract myself from the effects of global warming getting more and more undeniable, seeing monarch butterflies (and more importantly, BEES) all die out, and all that shit

and there is not a goddamn thing that is going to prevent any of this. it could be mitigated, but it won’t be, because there’s no short term financial incentive to do so

so why in the fuck stick around to see it firsthand? can i just take a trip to see the last old growth forest on this goddamn continent and then be done?

2020 has proven that there is no such thing as being too cynical. i always hoped i was too cynical about this stuff but if anything i was the opposite.

and now with nothing left to believe in, my favorite distraction is yet another avoidable casualty

i miss being upset about illini football

if god ever existed

then by now, god has long since been converted to a consumable good by some brilliant entrepreneur, and the last of god was tapped out long ago after being sold for a hefty profit

ANYWAY, WELCOME TO ILLINOIS WEEK!

Yes indeed, here we are! I’m choosing to truly embody the spirit of Illini football, in that you have no idea when or even if my Illini content is coming, but it won’t be when you expect it to be. It might have a sudden resurgence out of nowhere and then will just as quickly go away, making you wonder if it ever really existed.

2019 Recap: wait what

Leave it to Illinois to chart an unthinkable path to six wins that involved trailing to Connecticut Huskies, losing at home to Eastern Michigan, blowing a winnable Nebraska game, defeating Wisconsin straight up as 31-point underdogs, mounting a 25-point road comeback against Michigan State while at no point looking like the superior team, dueling Iowa to a narrow defeat, and then getting completely blasted by the worst Northwestern team in a generation.

The Akron, UConn and Rutgers wins saw luck play no role. Similarly, luck played no role in the Northwestern, Michigan or Minnesota losses.

Luck played into the EMU loss a bit, but was nowhere near as much a factor as poor pass defense. The same can be said of the bowl game against Cal. Similarly, some random events could have swung the Iowa game in Illinois’ favor, but that result probably holds if the game is played again.

Wisconsin was an earned win that Illinois probably wins if the game is played again, and this is because the Illini defense is built specifically to contain offenses like Wisconsin.

The Michigan State game required one of the most improbable sequences of events I’ve ever seen, and while luck played no part in the Purdue game after kickoff, the game was essentially decided by monsoon conditions descending on West Lafayette and neutralizing Purdue’s offense.

Against Nebraska, all the coin flips came up Illinois and they still found a way to lose. Allowing over 700 yards of offense will definitely make up for 4 takeaways in the opponent’s red zone.

What’s my point in saying all this? Simply that all kinds of bizarre things happened last year as Illinois’ quality of play varied wildly.

That’s not to say that there were no trends. The defense mostly stabilized as the season went on, but it’s hard to say if that’s because they played better or if it’s because they played the zone read teams like Nebraska and Minnesota early in the schedule. Deep passing, especially on playaction, was a fatal weakness that was exploited by Cal in the bowl game to great effect. Nothing will change schematically, so there’s not much of a reason this weakness should go away.

The offense, while not as good as the defense, showed more definite signs of improvement. While the running game took a step back due to replacing AJ Bush with Brandon Peters, there was a big play component that didn’t really exist with Bush, largely in the form of Peters’ ability to throw deep in the general direction of Josh Imatorbhebhe. #9 brought big-time J.J. Arcega-Whiteside energy, catching 9 of his 33 receptions for touchdowns while averaging 19.2 yards per catch. Dre Brown emerged as a more consistent rusher than Reggie Corbin, providing some punch to balance the Illini offense.

Brandon Peters started out looking like an awkward fit for the Illini offense, which simply couldn’t make enough yards against a soft Nebraska defense to hold on to the ball and run out the clock with a huge lead. A putrid 9 for 22 performance for 78 yards and nothing on the ground also resulted in a turnover and a number of huge hits by unblocked defenders. A bye week was of little help, as Peters got rocked by Minnesota in a 5 for 10 32 yard performance that was cut short due to an injury.

Peters would return after missing the Michigan game to throw 2 touchdowns with no turnovers against Wisconsin, then took care of the ball during two more wins. The Michigan State game is by no means instructive of anything, but Peters showed command of the offense in the Iowa game, completing over 50% of his passes and rushing for 76 yards. The only problem was a pair of turnovers that proved crucial. The bowl game proved his best, as he completed 60% of his passes and took 8 carries for 68 yards. What these numbers show is a quarterback who became comfortable with his role as a situational runner.

It’s a good thing he grew into this role, because it is a nightmare on the depth chart behind him.

2020: What To Generally Expect

Given Peters’ growth throughout the year, he should be substantially more effective to start 2020 than he was to start 2019. The offensive line returns four starters and adds a multi-year FCS All-American to fill Richie Petitbon’s void. The receiving depth chart is a bit of a mess outside of Imatorbhebhe, but this was also true last year once injuries came early for that position group. Former Top-100 recruit Luke Ford will join Daniel Barker at TE, and with Ricky Smalling gone I would imagine Rod Smith will try to split Ford out occasionally to prevent Bhebhe from being doubled all the time. The lead backs are gone, but the quarterback and offensive line are largely the same. Expect Mike Epstein, Chase Brown and freshman Reggie Love to step up and tote the rock.

I think it’s fair to expect the offense to be slightly better in both phases than 2019 only because they should be more consistent with all the reps they have under their collective belts. Peters will not put up eye-popping numbers, but he’ll make plays that move the chains when they’re needed.

I mentioned Ricky Smalling’s departure; he, probable 6th OL Jake Cerny and probable starting RB Ra’von Bonner have left the program. Each is a senior. I’ve ragged on Bonner for his sad 2-yards-up-the-middle 2017 true freshman campaign, but he’s been more effective under Rod Smith, increasing his YPC while making some plays out of the backfield. He chose to opt out of this season due to concerns about his asthma and coronavirus. I’ll have more on that later.

On defense, the whole back seven outside of middle linebacker Dele Harding will return. It’s unclear how he’ll be replaced, as Jake Hansen may slide over to the mike position. This would leave his WLB spot open for more athletic backers such as Khalan Tolson and Miami transfer Derrick Smith. Top-100 recruit Marquez Beason joins the fold after missing 2019 with an ACL tear; he will compete for immediate playing time at nickel and is likely to return kicks as well.

The defensive line experiences the most turnover and is the biggest question mark, especially with as inconsistent as they were in 2019. Jamal Woods will need to stay healthy and Calvin Avery will need to play up to his potential for the interior line to hold its water, and the defensive ends will be a massive liability barring something unforeseen. Owen Carney has shown the ability to occasionally beat a tackle on the pass rush, but neither him nor Isaiah Gay has been a factor against the zone read. Behind those two seniors, there’s only freshmen. Ask Rutgers fans if having good secondary play matters when the opponent doesn’t need to throw.

The special teams units will be among the best in the country. James McCourt has 60-yard range and Blake Hayes is one of the nation’s best punters. Lovie Smith is pleased with this.

2020: Schedule At A Glance

In the unlikely, but not unthinkable, event that nothing changes in the Big Ten schedule, Illinois will get nearly a whole extra month of practice before kicking off in Piscataway on October 3rd.

Think about how ridiculous that sounds. Something’s going to change.

October 3rd: at Rutgers

October 10th: at Nebraska

October 17th: vs Purdue

October 24th: vs Minnesota

October 31st: at Wisconsin

November 7th: vs. Iowa

November 14th: at Indiana

November 21st: L vs. Ohio State

November 28th: L at Northwestern

Ending the season with two straight losses means there is not much room for error in the first seven games. If you think I’m being dramatic by assigning a loss to the Northwestern game already, watch football some time, it’s really fun. Illinois has a better chance of beating Ohio State than beating Northwestern, unless there’s a coaching change before the end of the season. If Lovie Smith couldn’t even compete with 2019 Northwestern, he will never defeat Pat Fitzgerald. It’s not even worth debating.

Well, I’m looking for 5-4, which means 5-2 in the games that aren’t already decided. That’s a bit of a tough ask with road trips to Wisconsin and Indiana and of course the date with Minnesota. They’ll need to win one of those three without losing to Rutgers, Purdue, Nebraska or Iowa. This may seem like an unfair expectation, but I ask you: at what point does it become fair to have expectations of Illinois football? I would argue that after 2019, it’s no longer acceptable to be steamrolled by every conference opponent with a pulse.

When talking to an Illinois fan, mention: Blake Hayes, James McCourt, the Wisconsin and Michigan State games from last year, men’s basketball

When talking to an Illinois fan, don’t mention: Football after 2020, the defensive line, Northwestern, Miles Smith, the NBA combine