Location: Champaign, Illinois
2017 Record: 2-10 (0-9 Big Ten)
Head Coach: Lovie Smith
2018 record: 2-2 (0-1 Big Ten)
All time record vs. OSU: 30-68
What has happened thus far in 2018:
The Fighting Illini began the season against Kent State, riding a strong second half to a 31-24 victory. In Week 2, Illinois overcame another sluggish start to gain a convincing 34-14 win against Western Illinois. After leading through the first three quarters, the Fighting Illini fell short, falling to USF 25-19 at Soldier Field in Chicago. Illinois played Penn State in the first Big Ten matchup of the season, where they held tough through three quarters, even leading 24-21 at one point in the third quarter, before Penn State scored six consecutive touchdowns to win 63-24.
Freshman quarterback M.J. Rivers Jr. appears to be rising as an essential part of head coach Lovie Smith’s offense. After throwing two touchdowns in his debut against Western Illinois in place of injured quarterback A.J. Bush, Rivers has shown continued improvement on the field against strong opponents like Penn State. As he becomes more comfortable within the offense, he could continue to improve, having already set career highs for himself in total offense in each of the three games he has appeared, including 173 total yards against Penn State.
A balanced running attack appears to be Illinois’ biggest strength this year. With a freshman quarterback at the helm, the offense has had to remain balanced and rely on a steady running attack to aleve the quarterback of pressure. The Illini rushed for 174 yards and a touchdown against Penn State, including a 51-yard run from junior Reggie Corbin. With two running backs sharing carries in Corbin and Mike Epstein, the Illini have a strength in their consistent running attack this season.
The other side of the ball has not been as consistent for the Illini this season. Their defense has failed to create stops when they need them against strong opponents like USF and Penn State. Illinois gave up 591 total yards against Penn State and allowed them to convert 9-of-11 third-down attempts. It also gave up six straight touchdowns to end the game. While the Fighting Illini had two takeaways against Penn State, the Illini defense will certainly be hope for improvement as it comes off its bye week and resumes the Big Ten season.