1, From a pure confidence standpoint, how big was the win over Michigan State after a pair of lopsided losses?
Jeremy Werner: Huge. This season felt like the 2005 and 2012 seasons, lost seasons under the two previous first-year coaches (Ron Zook and Tim Beckman). But this win changes that narrative and gives Illinois something to build on - both for the rest of the season and in recruiting. While we all know Michigan State is having a horrid season, but the Spartans won the Big Ten last season, played in the College Football Playoff and have been among the nation's elite over the last three years. The Illini are feeling pretty good this week about their accomplishment. The defense has taken big strides the last three weeks (the scores don't show that), and the offense made enough plays to win.
2, Ideally, what kind of program/scheme would Lovie Smith like to install at Illinois and how does that differ from what he’s running currently?
Werner: Lovie is known for the "Tampa 2" defense that Monte Kiffin and Tony Dungy made famous. Cover-2 is just part of the Illini's scheme, which is a single-gap, aggressive 4-3 scheme. The Illini have struggled adjusting to the gap responsibilities, which created a lot of early running room for opponents, but seem much more comfortable in the scheme now and have done a pretty good job against the run the last three weeks against Michigan, Minnesota and Michigan State. In the future, the Illini just need more speed and athleticism in the back seven.
On offense, Garrick McGee wants to run a power-run scheme, preferably with a dual-threat quarterback. He just doesn't have the personnel to do it now -- something he needed three weeks to learn. But McGee switched to a spread scheme during conference play and has done a nice job with limited personnel this season. The Illini need more playmakers at receiver and much more physicality on the line.
3, Illinois is second-to-last in the Big Ten in total offense. What have been the shortcomings of the group and where have been the bright spots?
Werner: This group was limited coming into the season, but injuries have absolutely ravaged them. Jeff George Jr. was the fourth-string quarterback during the spring, but Wes Lunt and Chayce Crouch both have suffered injuries and Jimmy Fitzgerald transferred just before fall camp started. Illinois lost two of its top playmakers, receiver Mike Dudek and running back Dre Brown, to spring ACL injuries (the second year in a row for both players). Their top receiver Malik Turner missed last week with a concussion and promising freshman receiver Dominic Thieman suffered a broken ankle two weeks ago. The Illini running backs are a strength but every other position is severely undermanned.
4, How has Jeff George Jr. settled into the starting role at quarterback?
Werner: George Jr. has not been very accurate and he's committed some very costly turnovers, especially against Minnesota. He's missed some throws that Big Ten starters need to make. But considering his position as a redshirt freshman starting against some pretty good opponents, he's fared fairly well. He's improved each week and made some big throws in the fourth quarter against Michigan State. He's more mobile than Lunt and has shown an "it" factor with his mental toughness. He's very well-liked by his teammates, and they've rallied around him.
5, The Illini are tied for fourth in the Big Ten (with Wisconsin) with 2.4 sacks per game. What part of the defense is Illinois’ strength for bringing pressure?
Werner: Easily the defensive ends. Dawuane Smoot has an argument as the best defensive end in the Big Ten and will likely be selected in the top 40 of the N.F.L. Draft this spring. He's got both power and speed. His surface stats may not seem eye-popping (11.5 TFLs, 3.0 sacks), but Pro Football Focus tallied him for 11 pressures against Michigan State and six pressures the week prior against Minnesota.
On the other side, Carroll Phillips has had a breakout season and currently ranks fourth in the nation in TFLs per game (1.7) and second in the Big Ten in sacks per game (0.78). He's not as strong against the run as Smoot, but he is a premier pass rusher due mostly due to his quickness off the edge. Auburn grad transfer Gimel President started 10 games for the Tigers and gives them solid depth.
6, In terms of one-two punches at linebacker, Hardy Nickerson and Tre Watson appear solid. How have they impacted the game for Illinois?
Werner: After losing T.J. Neal to a transfer to Auburn, Hardy Nickerson was exactly what the Illini needed to fill a short-term need at linebacker. He's not as big as his dad, but he's pretty athletic and just a very instinctual 'backer. He has a nose for the ball and has provided a stabilizing presence in the middle of the defense. Watson has taken huge strides in recent weeks. He made his first start at Nebraska and had some early struggles, especially with physicality, and missed some run fits. But he's improved immensely the last few weeks and has made a lot of big hits near the line of scrimmage. He's turned into a playmaker, proven by his Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors.
7, Illinois is allowing opponents to convert 45.2 percent on third down. What have been the main reasons the defense can’t get off the field on third down?
Werner: Pass coverage has been a huge issue. The Illini have a physical secondary. Freshmen safeties Stanley Green and Patrick Nelson have been huge pluses in that regard. But outside of junior cornerback Jaylen Dunlap (who has seven PBUs the last two weeks), the Illini have been pretty atrocious in coverage. They leave too many holes in zone coverage and haven't been physical enough in man coverage. Redshirt freshman Cameron Watkins showed some flashes against Michigan State though (four tackles and one PBU) and could provide the athleticism and physicality they need.
8, Who is the x-factor on Saturday for Illinois?
Werner: It has to be George Jr., who likely will make his fourth start. I think Illinois' defense should allow them to be somewhat competitive against the Badgers, but the offense can't be put the defense in terrible situations like it did against Minnesota when turnovers gave the Gophers extremely short fields. George Jr. and the offense committed no turnovers against the Spartans and it was a huge reason for the victory. George Jr. must take care of the ball against the aggressive, fearsome Badgers defense and then make enough key throws for the Illini to have any chance.
9, What areas of Wisconsin do you expect will give Illinois trouble? Where do you think the Illini have the edge over the Badgers?
Werner: Anything and everything on that elite defense. The Badgers are physical, athletic and confusing up front. The Illini offensive line is more of a finesse group, but at some point it will have to open up some holes with brute strength. George Jr. must diagnose the blitzes and make the right reads. The Illini defensive line is by far the best group on the team. Wisconsin's offensive line looks improved from last season, so it won't be easy, but the Illini front four must cause havoc for Illinois to have a chance.
10, What is the one thing Illinois needs to do well in order to win Saturday?
Werner: Win the turnover battle by a large margin. Anyone familiar with Lovie Smith's days with the Chicago Bears knows that his defenses and teams lived on takeaways. Illinois has a plus-five turnover margin this season, but most of those came against Murray State and Rutgers. To pull off such a huge upset, Illinois must give its offense short fields and shorten some Wisconsin possessions.