Offensive yards per play: 5.59 (T-69th nationally)
Defensive yards per play: 6.54 (103rd)
Turnover margin: Plus-1 (T-50th)
Penalty yards per game: 73.8 (T-106th)
Lovie Smith (16-37 at Illinois, 16-37 career)
Smith is now without the gloriously long and white beard from previous seasons but still calls the defensive plays and uses the same “Tampa-2” base scheme that he did for well over a decade in the NFL. His seat may be a tad warm in Champaign — his high-water mark was a 7-6 record last year — but it’s taken time to rebuild a program with just three winning seasons in the 21st century. Smith’s roster is finally getting older, and no coach has been more active in the NCAA transfer portal in its brief history. His name still has cachet among recruits too, considering he was an NFL head coach with Chicago (2004-12) and Tampa Bay (2014-15) before moving to the college ranks.
It’s all about the quarterback for Rod Smith, in his third season running the Illini. AJ Bush was essentially an option QB for part of the 2018 season before Brandon Peters arrived as more of a pass-first talent last year. Smith helped pioneer the up-tempo spread offense in his early coaching days under Rich Rodriguez and has featured bigger-bodied receivers and tight ends in Champaign like Josh Imatorbhebhe (6-foot-2, 220 pounds) , Daniel Barker (6-4, 250) and Brian Hightower (6-3, 220). Still, Illinois has run the ball 64.5% of the time this year — and that ratio went up last week when backup quarterback Isaiah Williams carried 31 times for 192 yards against Rutgers. Multiple running backs have helped the Illini to rank 32nd nationally at 5.04 yards per rush.
Coordinator: Lovie Smith
A rocky start to the 2018 season led to Lovie Smith assuming the additional role of defensive coordinator, and he’s held the title ever since. Smith has used the same “Tampa-2” system since Tony Dungy hired him as linebackers coach with Tampa Bay in the mid-1990s. Like any Cover-2 scheme, it calls for two deep safeties and four linemen who can pressure quarterbacks. The twist is having a middle linebacker or two who can drop to cover athletic tight ends or slot receivers. Critics say the approach is outdated against modern spread offenses and Illinois provides recent evidence — it has routinely been near the bottom of the Big Ten in scoring defense and total defense. Its 34.3 points per game allowed is 10th in the league through four contests.
Players to watch
Whoever plays quarterback: Maybe it’s Brandon Peters, the Michigan transfer who sat out the last two weeks following a positive test for COVID-19. Maybe it’s Isaiah Williams, whose 192 rushing yards last week were a program record for a QB and earned him Big Ten freshman of the week honors. If it’s preseason starter Peters, expect a pass-first player who only runs as a last resort. The redshirt freshman Williams, meanwhile, is an explosive former high four-star prospect who turned down nearly every major program in the country to come to Illinois.
Jake Hansen, linebacker: Middle linebacker is especially crucial in Smith’s defense and he inserted the 6-foot-1, 230-pound Hansen in the role this season. The senior Florida native certainly earned it after leading the nation in forced fumbles last season and is at it again in 2020 with two forced fumbles and a team-best 37 tackles. He was especially active against Rutgers last week, logging 15 stops with an interception and a pass breakup. A team captain and the only 2019 Butkus Award semifinalist playing college ball this year, Hansen is the heart of the defense and a likely NFL player next year.
They said it
“No one has cycled through quarterbacks more than we have, but it’s good to see somebody else playing more than one guy. … (Luke) McCaffrey is an excellent football player. He had the same type of effect that Isaiah (Williams) had on our football team this week.” — Illinois coach Lovie Smith
“The challenge for us is not really knowing who is going to play and who is going to be out there for them and what they’re going to do on offense depending on who is playing quarterback. So we’re going to have to get ready for multiple things.” — Nebraska coach Scott Frost
“It’s not like a whole-grade switch in their offense. Obviously there’s different tweaks when (Williams) is in the football game and when Peters is in the football game. There’s different tweaks involved. So we just gotta tweak our scheme a little bit.” — Nebraska defensive coordinator Erik Chinander