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UConn football opponent preview: Illinois Fighting Illini

An early look at one of UConn’s two Big Ten opponents that start with the letter “I”

Illinois v Rutgers Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

When was the last time Illinois had a winning record in football? Take a guess.

You’re probably wrong.

Ron Zook went 6-6 during the regular season in 2011, then was unceremoniously fired before the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, won by current West Virginia defensive coordinator Vic Koenning. The Illini haven’t been back above water since, even after hiring former NFL coach and local hero Lovie Smith. Sound familiar?

Offense

That’s just one of the similarities that Illinois has with UConn football, who also haven’t had a winning season in eight years as a result of [alien howl rattles through a fathomless gorge]. The presumed starting quarterback going into spring camp, freshman MJ Rivers, has also transferred, leaving the position wide open. Their defense was horrendous in 2018, and their offensive and defensive lines are positions of strength.

The potential replacements at QB are sophomore Isaiah Williams, incoming freshman Matt Robinson and Michigan transfer Brandon Peters, who failed to win the job last year. The competition is still ongoing in camp.

Whoever takes his place will be aided by what should be one of the best rushing attacks in their division. Illinois’ offensive line returns four starters, including All-Big Ten tackle Alex Palczewski. The fourth starter is expected to be Alabama transfer Richie Petitbon. They’ll be blocking for possibly the best running back in the Big Ten, junior Reggie Corbin.

The wide receiver support is less promising. Their most prolific returner, junior Ricky Smalling, caught only 33 passes last year. Junior slot receiver Dominic Stampley had an impressive 16.4 yards per catch, but was only targeted 29 times.

Defense

Illinois’ defense wasn’t quite historically bad last year, they were more in the vein of just nationally bad. 122nd in points per play allowed, 114th in yards per pass attempt and 125th in yards per rush attempt.

As they attempt to rebuild after a not-so-fantastic year, their strength will be in the front seven. They bring back nearly everyone on the two-deep, minus All-Big Ten candidate Bobby Roundtree, who suffered a devastating spinal injury in the spring.

Senior Owen Carney Jr. and junior Tymir Oliver will take the charge on the defensive line, while former five-star defensive tackle Oluwole Betiku will attempt to supplement that position group, transferring in from USC.

With depth and experience, Illinois linebacker corps is poised for a breakout season in 2019, led by senior Dele Harding and junior Jake Hansen. The two combined for over 15 percent of the team’s tackles last year, 13.5 of them for loss.

The Illini have depth at defensive back too: they lose only three pass break-ups in the form of corner Cameron Watkins. All signs are pointing to an interesting Illinois defense in 2019, which is almost shocking considering their form last year.

Prediction

Illinois: Ron Zook career win percentage in Champagne

UConn: 7