Husker opponent preview: Everything you need to know about the Illinois Fighting Illini

Lovie Smith has an 11-28 record at Illinois. 

Illinois Fighting Illini

2019 record: 2-1 (0-0 Big Ten)

Offensive yards per play: 5.6 (82nd nationally)

Defensive yards per play: 4.7 (41st)

Turnover margin: plus-1 (T-40th nationally)

Penalty yards per game: 84.3 (125th)

Coach

Lovie Smith (11-28 at Illinois)

More known for his lavish beard than his coaching pedigree these days, Lovie Smith remains at Illinois after being hired in 2016. He left the NFL after 2015 following an 8-24 tenure with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It hasn’t gone so great in three years. His inaugural year was a 3-9 season, followed by 2-10, 4-18 and now 2-1. He’s never finished higher than 6th in the West. Smith does, however, have a defense that can — at times — cause some issues for Big Ten teams. But inconsistent quarterback play and a constant change of offensive scheme have kept the Illini from getting a groove under Smith.

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Offense

Type: Spread

Coordinator: Rod Smith

Illinois wants to throw the ball in 2019. Smith, in his second season as offensive coordinator, came from Arizona, where he was co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. He’s a quarterback guru, with stops at Michigan, West Virginia and South Florida. He was a graduate assistant at Clemson in 2001 — before Clemson was Clemson. Brandon Peters, a Michigan transfer, has attempted 95 passes in three games, third most in the Big Ten. Running back Reggie Corbin is among the best in the Big Ten. He’s averaging 7.5 yards per carry this season.

Defense

Type: 3-4

Coordinator: Lovie Smith

Smith was known for his stout defenses in the NFL. This Illini defense won’t win him any Super Bowls. The Illini gave up three points in the opener against Akron, but then Connecticut scored 23 and Eastern Michigan scored 34. The Illini actually tied the game late, and had a chance to get the ball back or go to overtime. Instead, Eastern Michigan drove the length of the field in less than two minutes and kicked a field goal at the buzzer to win it.

Players to watch

Peters: The quarterback transferred after it was clear he wasn’t going to beat out Shea Patterson or Dylan McCaffrey at Michigan. He was granted immediate eligibility at Illinois, and so far, has a 151.0 passer rating. He’s completing 63.2% of his passes for 687 yards with nine touchdowns and two picks. He was excellent against Eastern Michigan, with 297 passing yards and two touchdowns.

Corbin: The 5-foot-10 senior scares a lot of defensive coordinators. He has run for 180 yards and two scores on 24 carries this season — he missed the Connecticut game with an injury. Corbin has shown he can take over a game. In a 55-31 win over Minnesota last year, he went for 213 yards and two scores. He hit the 100-yard mark on nine carries against Wisconsin last season and had 155 yards on 8.6 yards per carry against Maryland. He can break off a long run, and Nebraska will have to keep an eye on him out of the backfield.

Ricky Smalling, wide receiver: Smalling is fifth in the conference with 16 catches for 159 yards and a touchdown. Peters likes to find Smalling in the red zone, and on quick passes. He has broken 100 yards receiving in a game once, but should Nebraska gain a lead, Peters could be looking to Smalling often during a comeback attempt.

They said it

“When a team can beat you running the football equally as well as they can pass, they give you a lot of different formations, from no backs to one, that's what causes you problems. Just in general it's one thing to run the football but the option part of it, that along with the run keeps the defense up at night." — Lovie Smith on preparing for Nebraska’s offense.

“He can cut on a dime, he’s fast, he’s hard to tackle, he can do a lot of things in the pass game. And they do a nice job of, when there’s two backs in the backfield, not giving him the football and not making him the back, but he’ll go block willingly and go be the lead block too.” — Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander on Reggie Corbin.

“Watching Illinois on tape more on defense so far, they’ve improved a bunch since last year defensively. Some of the schematic things they’re doing are different. They look bigger and faster to me. You can tell they’re older and more experienced than they were a year ago.” — Scott Frost on the Illini defense.

Three stats

18.6: Average margin of victory for Nebraska in the past three meetings between these two schools.

105: Passing yards Nebraska had against Illinois in 2015, the last time the Huskers lost to the Illini. Tommy Armstrong was 10 for 31 for 105 yards and one interception, a 14.2 QBR. Wes Lunt threw for 251 yards and two touchdowns in the Illini win.

Four: Wins over Power Five schools for Smith at Illinois. Half of those are against Rutgers.

Schedule

Aug. 31 Illinois 42, Akron 3

Sept. 7 Illinois 31, UConn 23

Sept. 14 Eastern Michigan 34, Illinois 31

Sept. 21 vs. Nebraska

Oct. 5 at Minnesota

Oct. 12 vs. No. 11 Michigan

Oct. 19 vs. Wisconsin

Oct. 26 vs at Purdue

Nov. 2 vs. Rutgers

Nov. 9 at Michigan State

Nov. 23 at No. 18 Iowa

Nov. 30 vs Northwestern

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Chris Heady covers Husker football and is the Nebraska men's basketball beat writer. He started at The World-Herald in 2017. Follow him on Twitter @heady_chris. Email: chris.heady@owh.com.

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