It has been a rough season for Illinois football. The Illini have lost 6 straight coming to West Lafayette and have one of the worst offenses in America. This week we talked to Brandon Birkhead from SB Nation’s The Champaign Room to get the scoop on Illinois before Purdue meets them for the Cannon.
T-Mill: Much has been made about how young this Illinois team is, but it means little without improvement. What improvement have you seen from the beginning of the year until now?
Brandon: To put it in context, Illinois is the youngest team in college football, and it's not close. This team is insanely young and is depending on freshman at every position on the field except kicker. To say Tim Beckman/Bill Cubit left the cupboard bear is an understatement.
Honestly, there hasn't been too much improvement this year. This year is all about building for the future. It's hard to see a team improve as a team when they are depending on freshman at each posistion. However, some of the individual freshmen are starting to perform better as the year goes on. Bennett Williams has become the best Illinois defensive player as a true freshman safety. Ricky Smalling is starting to put it together at WR, and could be Illinois' number one target with more injury concerns with Mike Dudek.
The offensive line -- which starts 4 total freshmen, including 3 true freshmen, has slowly improved throughout the season, which is a good sign. The unit can still struggle mightily at times and many of the players are inconsistent in their technique, but hey, freshmen.
The defense started out good for Illinois in their first two games, but struggled when Big Ten play started. But the last two weeks they have played a lot better against Minnesota and Wisconsin and could have a strong finish to 2017 and may help Illinois steal a win in the Big Ten.
T-Mill: We get Jeff George Jr.! His dad has a... history with Purdue. How has he been overall for an Illinois passing game that has struggled to say the least.
Brandon: He's been about what you would expect out of a player that came to Illinois as a prefered walk-on. He's not his Dad by any means. He has really struggled with turnovers, largely due to not seeing defenders before he makes his throws. He has 12 interceptions in 10 career games. He's also has this weird hitch in his throwing motion that I think may play a part. Playing behind a very poor pass blocking offensive line doesn't help either.
He is also not a threat to run the ball, and that has led Lovie Smith to start a two-QB system with true freshman Cam Thomas. Cam Thomas is blazing fast and is a huge threat in the running game, but he really struggles throwing. Lovie is trying to use both to maximize their strengths, but this hasn't worked well yet.
George Jr. is only a sophomore and he has shown some flashes on some drives. He has some ability, and Illinois may need to count on him being a key part of the offense for next season as well. Overall it's not been good, but it could be a lot worse.
T-Mill: Early in the season it looked like the four worst teams in the conference in some order would be Nebraska, Purdue, Rutgers, and Illinois. This is the final game among the four, and having played Nebraska and Rutgers (who just beat Purdue) does that give you some hope of a win Saturday?
Brandon: Well the Illini lost to Nebraska and Rutgers by more than Purdue lost to them so.......no. That doesn't mean I don't think Illinois could win this game, because they can. The defense as I mentioned before is starting to play better and if they can keep the game low scoring, and a bounce or two goes Illinois' way they can walk out with a road win.
A silly stats that does give me hope is that the road team has won this game every year since 2012. Faith may just favor Illinois in this one.
T-Mill: The Illinois defense has not been bad. Who are the standouts we should look for?
Brandon: THEY DID IT!! ILLINOIS AREN'T BAD AT SOMETHING!!!
As I mentioned before, Bennett Williams is our best defensive player. He is a very aggressive safety who runs all over the field to make plays. Del'Shawn Phillips had a great game last week against Wisconsin in his return to the starting lineup. Phillips had 14 tackles with 2 being tackles for loss. Stanley Green and Patrick Nelson round out a solid defensive backfield.
The defensive line has struggled to get any pressure on the QBs in Big Ten play. Freshmen Bobby Roundtree and Isaiah Gay have shown their athleticism, but need to bulk up in the offseason to make a true impact against Big Ten offensive linemen.
T-Mill: Is Lovie Smith on the hot seat? Does his buyout and the youth movement offer him some protection?
Brandon: No, Lovie is not on the hotseat. Part of it is the large buyout, but you also can't fire a coach who is in charge of a complete and total rebuild job like Illinois and fire him after two years. If the Lovie Smith era doesn't work out, the next coach needs to feel like they will have the support and time to actually fix the program. If you keep firing coaches without giving them a reasonable chance, you won't be able to hire any decent coach to the program.
Also, I think Lovie has done a decent job so far. This freshmen class has some promising players in it. The defense is starting to come along as well. The team is still struggling, but no coach could have come in and fixed this team in two years, especially considering the odd circumstances of Lovie Smith's initial hire. It was later on when Illinois decided to hire Smith after hiring and then firing Bill Cubit as full time coach. Lovie wasn't able to recruit his own guys, and had to do his best to keep the recruiting class Cubit brought in intact. Given the late start to his first year, you could call this year 1B in the Lovie Smith era.
Fans need to be patience and give this staff time to fix the program.
T-Mill: How do you see Saturday's game playing out?
Brandon: The keys to the game for Illinois will be stopping Purdue's rushing attack on defense. If they can do that they should be within striking distance late. On offense they need to run the ball well and avoid turnovers at all cost. Illinois needs to play a boring simple game to have a shot, and I think that they will in this contest.
I think Illinois covers the spread in a low scoring game, but the offense just doesn't have enough to take the win. 24-17 Purdue wins.