Iowa Hawkeyes Football Preview: Illinois Fighting Illini

Iowa takes a visit to Champaign, IL in the middle of November looking to finish out conference play strong.

Overview

Illinois made one of the bigger splashes this offseason when athletic director Josh Whitman let go of Bill Cubit and brought on former Chicago Bears head coach, Lovie Smith to coach his Fighting Illini.  

The hope is that Lovie will attract a lot of the talent in the Chicago-land area, as well as talent from neighboring states.  As a recruit, when you have a former NFL head coach recruiting you, that has to mean a lot.  He's a guy that has seen what it takes to play in the NFL and that will without a doubt appeal to kids as they decide which school to attend.

They haven't had a winning record since 2011 when they won the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl under Ron Zook.  After that season, Tim Beckman took the program over for three seasons and went a combined 12-25 in that time.  Cubit went 5-7 last year.  

If you're Whitman, you're just looking for some consistency.  Ron Zook had a few good seasons as the head man, but also sprinkled in some bad ones.  The Illini are looking for Lovie to build a consistent winner in Champaign.  

Fans in Champaign haven't been able to get excited about football since Juice Williams led them to the Rose Bowl back in 2007. 

Offense

Illinois didn't have problems on defense, in fact they were quite good when it came to allowing points on the field.  It was scoring the points that was the problem for Wes Lunt and the crew.  Illinois managed just 23 points per game last season which was good for 103rd out of 128 FBS teams.  Their highest scoring output last season was 48 points at Purdue, but a combined three points against Penn State and Ohio State really killed the points per game.

They get a big key back in starting QB, West Lunt.  Lunt, who played six games at Oklahoma State back in 2012, has played in twenty games since making the move to Illinois for the 2014 and 2015 campaigns.  In 2014 he completed 64% of his passes for 1,763 yards and 14 touchdowns.  He also threw just three interceptions all year long.

In 2015, Lunt completed 56% of his passes, threw for 2,761 yards, 14 touchdowns, and just six interceptions.  He's played in 26 games in his college career and that leadership will be very valuable for Lovie Smith in his first year at the helm.  

Lunt will have help in the form of Ke'Shawn Vaughn, who returns after rushing for 723 yards and six TD's in his freshman campaign.  Tre Nation, who is an incoming freshman will likely back Vaughn up.  Lunt will lose Geronimo Allison, who caught 65 balls for 882 yards last season.  He was the top pass catcher on the team last season.  The will however return Malik Turner who caught 39 passes for 510 yards, and Desmond Cain, who caught 53 passes for 492 yards.  So they do return a decent amount on the edges despite losing Allison.

Along the offensive line, the return the two starting tackles and the center from a season ago.  

It will be interesting as to what kind of offensive scheme Lovie puts in place considering he's more of a defensive minded head coach.  He has some nice pieces in place, it'll only be a matter of implementing the right system so that everyone can thrive.

Honestly, it can't get much worse than it was last season.

Defense

The Illini weren't spectacular on defense last season, but it was much better than the offense.  Unfortunately, the Illini only return four starters on the defensive line, but do bring in graduate transfer Hardy Nickerson, who is the son of the defensive coordinator.  Nickerson led the Cal Bears with 112 tackles this past season, so he will be a welcomed addition to an Illini defense that needs help. 

They are coming off a season in which they allowed 23 points per game, which was good for 38th out of 128 FBS teams, but the problem was on the offensive side.  In four of their seven loses they allowed their opponent to score in the twenties, they just couldn't muster anything on offense.  For example, I thought their defense played fairly well in the game in Iowa City, it was just the fact that their offense couldn't do much against Iowa's defense. 

They'll be replacing the entire linebacking corp and three of the four defensive backs, so it's going to be a fairly inexperienced group as far as starts go.  Illinois is probably headed for another four or five win season, but it will take Lovie a couple of years to build this up from the ground.

Early Prediction

Away games can be difficult, but I don't see this as one of those games.  Iowa should be in prime form by this time during the season and will be looking for a blow out win after a couple of games that could go either way against Penn State and Michigan.  Illinois' offense will likely score between 20-25 points, but the defense still has to come around.  

I like the Hawkeyes in a 35-23 game. 


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