Originally published on July 16, let's update our look at the Fighting Illini.
Year 3 for head coach Lovie Smith has been a ride. The Illini won their first two games against rather weak nonconference foes — Kent State by seven, Western Illinois by 20 — before losing to South Florida by six at home.
Sophomore quarterback Cam Thomas, who looked like he was going to be the starter at quarterback after last season, never made it onto the field. Transfer AJ Bush won the starting job after a strong fall camp and then Thomas left the program after the first game.
Hasn't really impacted Illinois because Bush has been pretty good this season given the circumstances. He had 190 yards passing and 139 yards rushing in the opener. An injury knocked him off the field until an Oct. 6 matchup against Rutgers, where he returned to run for 116 yards and two scores and throw for 89 yards and another touchdown. He struggled against Purdue and Wisconsin (most have) but has played his best ball the last two weeks.
Against Minnesota last week, Bush 18-for-25 passing for 216 yards and two scores while adding another 127 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.
Bush's emergence, coupled with a breakout junior season from Reggie Corbin, has allowed new offensive coordinator Rod Smith to do what he does best, pump out one of the nation's best rushing attacks.
Illinois is sixth nationally in rushing S&P+, ninth in opportunity rate and 16th in marginal explosiveness. No one in the Big Ten has more 30-yard carries than Illinois (17) and only Wisconsin has a better yards-per-carry average (6.1).
Corbin has emerged from the last coordinator's doghouse (he had 78 yards a season ago) and has become one of the top rushers in the conference. He's got 952 yards and nine scores on 105 carries, good for a 9.1 yards-per-carry average that ranks third in the country.
Both Mike Epstein and Ra'Von Bonner have battled injuries off and on this season and that has played a role in Corbin's increased usage, but he's also just gotten that much better. It's pretty similar to Devine Ozigbo's situation.
The passing game is a mess still (90th in S&P+, 100th in completion rate, 105th in sack rate) and the defense has been an adventure, but the ground game provides reason for optimism.
About that defense, after three straight outings giving up over 40 points — all three losses — defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson resigned and Smith took over play-calling duties. Things were much better under Smith than they were under Nickerson — the defense disguised things against Minnesota, blitzed more and held the Gophers to a 27 percent success rate when throwing the ball — but this is still a young unit that has been fairly matador-like this season.
As a whole, this defense has struggled to sack the quarterback (114th in sack rate), struggled to get off the field on third down (107th in third-down conversions), struggled to stop the run (115th in S&P+) and struggled to produce many momentum plays on defense (94th in havoc rate).
The success on offense and the fact Illinois has already doubled last season's win total probably gives Smith some more time in Champaign to build, but the defense will need to prove over these final outings that the Minnesota game wasn't a flash in the pan against a bad offense.
ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI
2017 Record: 2-10 | Returning offensive starters: 7 | Returning defensive starters: 7
There are no ties to Philadelphia anywhere on his résumé. Lovie Smith was born in Texas, has coached in Oklahoma and Arizona, Kentucky and Missouri, Tennessee and Florida. He went to a Super Bowl as head coach of the Chicago Bears and in 2016 returned to the college game after 20 years in the NFL. So why bring up Philadelphia? I’d assume Smith is a process truther, because trusting The Process seems to be the way forward for him in Champaign.
Smith has won five games total during his first two seasons as the Illinois head coach. Last year, he took losses in the final 10 games. So it should come as no surprise to hear the offense was terribly inefficient (124th in yards per play, 127th in points per trip inside the 40) and the defense wasn’t much better (113th in success rate).
In order to score, Illinois had to grind for it. The Illini had to grind for each yard, they had to grind for each first down (114th in explosive-play percentage, 126th in first downs per possession) and they had to grind for each point (121st in yards per point). They made it to the red zone on only 17.9 percent of drives (126th) and scored touchdowns on those trips only 52 percent of the time (116th).
Running the ball wasn’t so much the issue as passing. The ground game almost averaged as many yards-per-play as the passing game did. Think about that for a minute.
Continue thinking about that.
That should never be the case.
Three guys played quarterback a season ago for the Illini — Jeff George Jr., Chayce Crouch and Cam Thomas. George threw seven touchdowns to 10 interceptions and had the highest completion rate of the three at 51.9 percent. Crouch completed 49.5 percent of his throws with a 1:4 TD-to-INT ratio. Thomas, then a true freshman, completed 42.4 percent of his throws with no scores and five picks. George transferred, Crouch transferred and Thomas is all that remains. Smith brought in a grad transfer in former Husker AJ Bush and three more freshmen quarterbacks but make no mistake, the job belongs to Thomas.
The big get was when Smith brought in former Arizona co-offensive coordinator Rod Smith to run the show for the Illini.
But wait, Arizona had Khalil Tate didn’t it?
Yes, yes it did.
So Smith was the guy who unleashed Tate?
Yes, yes he was, and the plan should be to use Thomas the same way.
In theory, it might work. Including sacks as pass attempts, Thomas averaged 6.5 yards per carry and 4.4 yards per pass. The running game as a whole last season wasn’t terrible. It was average overall (60th in rushing S&P+), average on the line (64th in adjusted line yards) and average in short-yardage situations (64th in power success rate). Average doesn’t keep head coaches around very long, but when we’re talking about a two-win team, being average at anything is something to feel good about.
(For comparison’s sake, Arizona’s run game was fourth in the country in explosive run play percentage. Arizona didn’t get stuffed often, was really good in short-yardage situations and had a top-flight offensive line. The Wildcats ran way more than average on standard downs and slightly above average on passing downs. If nothing else, that run tendency should carry over.)
Back to The Process comparison. For those that might not be aware, the Philadelphia 76ers are what people are referring to when they say “Trust the Process.” Long story short, Philly management felt the way to win big was by getting a superstar and the way to get said superstar was through the draft. So Philly played literal D-League teams in NBA games for years to pile up draft picks. Lots of young guys got minutes they wouldn’t have gotten elsewhere. Some of those guys turned into legitimate NBA players. Can’t help but see parallels with this Illinois team.
There’s obviously not a draft in the college game and Smith isn’t intentionally tanking, but last season saw a serious commitment to youth and one would assume the coaching staff is banking on even serious-er internal improvement.
On offense, the two leading returning rushers (Mike Epstein, Ra’Von Bonner), the leading returning wideout (Ricky Smalling), the leading returning tight end (Louis Dorsey) and four of five up front with starting experience are all second-year guys. On defense, 13 of the 20 regular snap-getters (guys that averaged at least a tackle a game) and eight of the 10 leading tacklers were freshmen or sophomores.
Epstein averaged over 6 yards a carry. Smalling nearly hit 500 receiving yards with a … shaky … passing game. The defense was surprisingly very good at big-play-prevention. (Not at much else but hey, it’s a start.) The main thing this season will be about finding those stars. Whether it be a guy on offense that can prove dynamic enough to open things up or a playmaker on a defense that was terrible at creating havoc (113th in havoc rate) and even worse at getting to the quarterback (126th in sack rate on passing downs).
And if those playmakers don’t pop up, Smith has made serious progress on the recruiting trail. In the last two seasons, he has signed back-to-back top-60 recruiting classes for the first time at Illinois since 2008 and 2009. He has two 4-star and top-100 athletes committed to his 2019 class. If they both stick, maybe they become the game-breakers.
Question becomes, does Smith stick that long? With opening games against Kent State and Western Illinois, the Illini should be 2-0 through two. If not, trouble is on the horizon. Even still, trouble is probably still there; their next best shot at a win, according to S&P+, is against Minnesota on Nov. 3 and even that is at 37 percent likelihood. Is 3-9 enough to last? Is 4-8? We’ll see. For now, all I ask is for Lovie to tweet out “Trust the Process.”
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.