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Scouting Illinois: Breaking down the Illini

Scouting Illinois: Breaking down the Illini

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Minnesota Illinois Football

Illinois running back Reggie Corbin runs against Minnesota last week. Corbin has rushed for 952 yards and averages 9.1 yards per carry.

Location: Champaign, Illinois.

Coach: Lovie Smith (9-24, third season).

Record: 4-5, 2-4 Big Ten.

Rankings: None.


Offensive averages / national rank


29.0 / 66

Total yards

416.0 / 59

Rushing yards

249.4 / 11

Passing yards

166.6 / 113


Defensive averages / national rank


36.9 / 116

Total yards

524.8 / 127

Rushing yards

240.3 / 122

Passing yards

284.4 / 122


Special-teams averages / national rank

Kickoff returns

17.7 / 113

Punt returns

5.5 / 109

Net punting

38.5 / 49

Why you may need Rolaids

1. It doesn't seem to matter the defense, the Illinois running game is capable of busting a big play at any time. The Illini ripped off an 80-yarder against Wisconsin. They had three touchdown runs of 70-plus yards last week against Minnesota. It's enough to get any defense's attention, much less a Nebraska unit that has struggled to slow down much of anything outside of the Bethune-Cookman game. The Huskers will have to make Illinois drive the field for its points, but it seems a big play or two is almost inevitable. Illinois has 16 scoring drives of less than a minute this season — the same as Clemson and five behind Alabama.

2. For all the talk locally of the chances of a 5-7 Nebraska team getting into a bowl game, it's Illinois that needs a win just as badly. At 4-5, the Illini close with a home game against Iowa, then play at Northwestern to end the regular season. Wins in each of those games seems like a long shot, so getting to five victories against the Huskers could really give Lovie Smith's crew something to play for down the stretch.

3. Illinois threw its young players to the wolves last season, and that's begun to pay off this year. The Illini played 22 true freshmen last season with 16 starting games. Both numbers were the most in the nation. Illinois is still young this year — only eight seniors on the roster after having just nine in 2017 — but there is plenty of experience on a roster that still features 78 freshmen and sophomores among its 102 players.

Why you might chill

1. Illinois' defense is just about as bad as it gets. The Illini have allowed 46, 46, 63 and 31 points in four games since "holding" Rutgers to 17. Defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson resigned Oct. 29, and now head coach Lovie Smith runs things on that side of the ball. There was some improvement against Minnesota, and Smith's reputation as a defensive coach is a strong one — he helped develop the Tampa 2 defense with Tony Dungy, was the defensive coordinator on the 2001 St. Louis Rams Super Bowl team, and put together several strong defensive units while head coach of the Chicago Bears. But this is a different story, especially going against a Nebraska offense that has found its stride.

2. Save for one of the stranger outcomes in recent Husker history, which is saying something, Nebraska has dominated the series with Illinois since joining the Big Ten. It's a 4-1 NU advantage, with the only loss coming in 2015 in Champaign when NU did everything it could to hand the Illini the game in a 14-13 loss. Even last season, one of the worst in program history, saw the Huskers go into Champaign and leave with a 28-6 win. After that victory, Nebraska lost 12 of its next 13 games. NU's average margin of victory in its Big Ten wins over Illinois is nearly two touchdowns, and the average score in Memorial Stadium is 38.3-16.3.

3. Nebraska has plenty to play for, too. Besides the talk this week of sending the seniors out on a winning streak, that winning streak, should the Huskers get all three of their final games, could put NU in position for a bowl. But you can't win them all if you don't win the first one. NU has been focused and locked in at the start of games in recent weeks. If the Huskers are able to make Illinois play from behind and throw the football, that's an advantage for NU. It's a pretty intriguing matchup considering these teams are a combined 6-12.

By the numbers

9.8, 10.5

Yards per carry in conference games and road conference games, respectively, for Illinois junior running back Reggie Corbin. He had 213 yards on 13 carries last week against Minnesota.


The Illinois offense is first in the nation in runs of 80-plus, 70-plus, 60-plus and 40-plus yards. After one 100-yard rushing game by a single player last season, the Illini have nine such performances this year.


The number of 50-plus yard field goals made by Illini kicker Chase McLaughlin, which is tied for the national lead. McLaughlin is also tied for first in the nation with nine made field goals from 40-plus yards.

Press coverage

Snippets from Illinois coach Lovie Smith's Monday press conference.

On preparing for Nebraska, with a chance to move one win closer to bowl eligibility:

A team that's been playing very good football as of late. They played an outstanding game against Ohio State; we know what's at stake. Whenever you go on the road, that's a tough duty, especially in an environment like that, but we're ready for it.

On improved defensive play against Minnesota:

We didn't just start playing defense this week. We've been involved, they (players) have been involved. This week we executed a lot better. It's not like we started from scratch this past week. Guys locked in this week. Whether we talk D-line, linebackers, or secondary, I thought all three groups showed up.

On Illinois moving forward as a program:

Records aside, we're trending in the right direction, and we've been that way for a while. It's good to get a win. As I talk about the process, that's what we're going through. Eventually, you get over the hump, and you start winning consistently. That's what we're going to do, try not to look in the past too much. It's just about the future for us, and the future is very bright.

On the Illini offense and running back Reggie Corbin having big games against Minnesota:

Offensively, whenever you can score that many points, 55 points, you've got a good chance to win, simple as that. Reggie Corbin, outstanding. Whenever you're the Big Ten player of the week, it kind of says a lot with all the good offensive players in the conference. In order for that to happen, the offensive line has to do a great job, and they did.

On Scott Frost, Adrian Martinez and Nebraska's improvement:

Of course Scott Frost is an excellent coach, Nebraska is one of those traditional programs where you expect a certain kind of play, certain type of athletes, a certain type of skill. Could say that with the linemen, too. They've had a lot of great quarterbacks, Scott Frost being one of them, and Martinez is another. He can throw the ball, he's athletic, he can beat you with his feet. The things we talk about that we're trying to do on offense are a lot of the same things they're doing. It's going to be a great challenge for our defense.

I think sometimes when' you're building it takes awhile. It doesn't happen right away. That's what they've gone through. as you watch their play, they've gotten better and better. Since the Purdue game, second half, their level has picked up quite a bit where they've had a chance to win all these games. We love being three-touchdown underdogs going into an environment like that.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7436 or On Twitter @HuskerExtraCB.


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Husker men's basketball/baseball reporter

A Ravenna native, Chris covers the University of Nebraska men's basketball team and assists with football coverage. He spent nearly 10 years covering sports at the Kearney Hub and nearly four years at the Springfield News-Leader in Springfield, Mo.

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