Iowa Football

Iowa football: 5 Things to know about Illinois

Lovie Smith and the Fighting Illini are going bowling

Illinois Fighting Illini head coach Lovie Smith. (Mike Carter/USA TODAY Sports)
Illinois Fighting Illini head coach Lovie Smith. (Mike Carter/USA TODAY Sports)

Lovie Smith is loving life in Champaign, Ill., these days.

The former Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach was warming up the hot seat a month ago, after his fourth Illinois team stood 2-4 and had suffered its fourth straight loss, 42-25 to Michigan.

But a lot has changed since that Oct. 12 loss.

The Illini upset Wisconsin, then took down Purdue, Rutgers and Michigan State. They come into Iowa City on Saturday riding a four-game winning streak and are eligible for their first bowl game since 2014.

How did Smith get things turned around? Let’s see if we can find out. Here are 5 Things about Illinois.

1. Is this Illinois run smoke and mirrors?

Looking at the numbers, it’s hard to figure out how Illinois has won four in a row after losing four in a row.

The win over Wisconsin was the shocker, of course, but beating Michigan State in East Lansing was quite an accomplishment, too, even if the Spartans are having a down year.

Quarterback Brandon Peters was the star of that Nov. 9 game, passing for 368 yards and three touchdowns, including a game-winning toss to Daniel Barker with five seconds left. Illinois was down 28-3 in the second quarter and 31-10 entering the fourth before rallying to win 37-34.

 

Impressive stuff, no doubt.

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But in other games, Peters has been pretty mediocre. He passed for 174 yards against Wisconsin, completing just 9 of 21 passes. He completed 3 of 6 passes against Purdue for 26 yards and 6 of 11 for 120 yards against Rutgers.

The rushing game has been equally inconsistent.

Reggie Corbin rushed for 83 yards and Dre Brown added 70 against Wisconsin. Brown had 131 against Purdue, Corbin 47. Corbin totaled 51 and Brown 31 against Rutgers, and Corbin 29, Brown 19 against Michigan State.

2. Where Illinois ranks in the Big Ten

If that leaves you scratching your head, look at these numbers.

Illinois ranks 10th in the Big Ten, allowing 25.7 points per game. It is ninth in rushing offense (150.3), 13th in rushing defense (196.2). The Illini are 12th in total (333.7) and passing (183.4) offense, 10th in total defense. They also are last in third-down conversions and time of possession.

But ...

Illinois does rank first in the Big Ten — and the country — in turnover margin with a plus-1.4. It has picked off 10 passes this fall and recovered 16 fumbles.

And, of course, the only matter number that matters — four wins in a row.

3. Illinois’ defense has a few standouts

3. As mentioned, the Illini defense doesn’t put a lot of fear in opponents as a whole.

But it’s got some impressive individuals.

Dele Harding, Sydney Brown and Tony Adams all rank in the top 10 in the Big Ten in interceptions per game. Jake Hansen ranks first with seven forced fumbles and first with three in recovered fumbles. Teammate Jartavius Martin is second with two.

Harding, a 6-foot-1, 230-pound senior linebacker, leads the Big Ten with 120 total tackles. He also has 10.5 tackles for loss.

Hansen, a 6-1, 225-pounds junior linebacker, has 72 tackles, 7.5 for loss and 3.5 sacks.

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4. Meet Illinois DE Oluwole Betiku Jr.

If the junior from Lagos, Nigeria, plays Saturday, he’s worth keeping an eye on.

A graduate transfer from USC, Betiku hasn’t played since the first half of the Wisconsin game but still leads the team with 11.5 tackles for loss and 8.9 sacks. That’s in seven games.

The 6-foot-3, 250-pounder was a 5-star recruit out of Serra (Calif.) High School.

Although his status was day-to-day Monday, he may be the “most interesting man” on the Illinois roster.

 

He went to a sports camp in Nigeria as a youngster where the boys were told to pick football or basketball. He loved basketball, but quickly noticed all the other, and taller, boys were choosing basketball.

“I’m like, ‘They’re definitely taking 48 tall guys,’” Betiku told the Chicago Tribune. “They weren’t interested in 6-3 basketball players. ... I thought about my chances and said: ‘You know what? I’ll just pick football.’”

He’s more than just a very talented football player these days. He also plays guitar and paints.

“All of my life, I never played sports seriously. I was seen as a person before,” he said. “I moved to the United States, all of a sudden, everywhere I go: ‘Oh, you play football. You’re that guy. You have dreadlocks and you’re a big black guy. You must play football.’

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“My social media posts were all football, and I realized I was attracting a certain type of people only interested in me because I play football. The conversation got boring.”

5. Lovie Smith’s journey

Lovie Smith is all about football.

Born and raised in Texas, Smith was a three-time all-stater in high school, a two-time All-American at Tulsa.

He started coaching right after college, at his high school alma mater. He’s coached in college and the NFL — taking the Bears to the Super Bowl after the 2006 season. He also coached Tampa Bay for two seasons.

At Illinois, his teams have gone 3-9, 2-10 and 4-8 before this season’s turnaround.

Comments: (319) 368-8696; jr.ogden@thegazette.com

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