Things were not looking good for Fighting Illini Head Coach Lovie Smith coming into 2019. Losing season after losing season – with no signature program wins – was putting the former NFL head coach as one of the most likely coaches to be fired after the season.
After a 2-4 start last season, Lovie Smith led his Fighting Illini to one of the biggest upsets in the last few decades of college football when they beat the No. 6 Wisconsin Badgers in a 24-23 stunner. Wisconsin had three turnovers and did not trail for a single second during the game, as Illini kicker James McCourt nailed a 39-yard field goal through the uprights as time expired.
Looking back on the upset last season, the Illini defensive line was one of the reasons that Wisconsin struggled so mightily. By clogging up running lanes, Illinois held Jonathan Taylor and the Wisconsin rushing attack to a mere 3.6 yards per carry, and Wisconsin was not able to muster up many big plays in the running game or in the play-action passing game.
Offensively, even though quarterback Brandon Peters had only 9 completions on 21 attempts, they still were able to stun the Badgers with a couple of big plays to eventually pull off the upset.
For Smith, this stunning victory perhaps saved his job for at least one more season. And for the Illini, this signature win jump-started a path to their first bowl appearance since 2014.
This year, the Illini are returning a lot of starters from the previous season; they have the most experienced roster in the Big Ten. Even though they went 4-5 last season in conference play, this team still has some elements that should worry Wisconsin in a game that Badger fans hope (and expect) to go much smoother than it did last year.
Quarterback Brandon Peters has played a lot of Big Ten football after starting his career as a Michigan Wolverine before transferring to the University of Illinois, and is lauded for his strong skills as a game manager. This season, he is expected to take another jump forward as a passer behind one of the most experienced offensive lines in the conference.
At receiver, Southern California transfer Josh Imatorbhebhe looks to be one of the better wideouts in the Big Ten this season, and the Illini bring back a very productive tailback in Mike Epstein.
The strength of this team, however, looks to be the defense. Last season, the Illini led the Big Ten in takeaways and led the nation with six defensive touchdowns.
“They had 18 fumbles they created last year, and they recovered an amazing 16 of the 18 fumbles,” Wisconsin Offensive Coordinator Joe Rudolph said of the Illini defense. “That’s an amazing statistic. They know their scheme well, they know how to play off of it and you have some headsy players that made a lot of plays for them last year.”
Overall, this team is very experienced at playing Big Ten football, and, for the first time in his tenure, Smith has a returning starter at the quarterback position. If Wisconsin repeats some of the sloppy fumbles and interceptions and doesn’t get off to a strong start, they could be in trouble facing a veteran Fighting Illini football team.