On Saturday, UConn and the Illinois Illini will meet on the football field for the first time ever. Since the Huskies aren’t familiar with their foes from the Big 10, we spoke to Stephen Cohn of The Champaign Room, Illinois’ SB Nation blog, to get the inside scoop on UConn’s upcoming opponent.
1) What were Illinois fans’ expectations heading into this season and how have they changed after a very convincing win over Akron to open the season?
My expectations were six wins, and that really hasn’t changed. I know other writers on staff at The Champaign Room are a little less bullish than me, but none of us are disappointed after the Akron game. The past two years, Illinois SCRAPED by MAC teams in Week 1 (Ball State and Kent State), so a 39-point win with some dominating moments is what we want to see. We’re all still somewhere between 4-6 wins, though, plus betting on it being Lovie’s last year at this point.
2) What is the scouting report on Illini QB Brandon Peters?
Well, we learned last week that he can kind of run. So that’s neat. But, from what we saw against the Zips, Peters isn’t going to lose the Illini any games. He might not win them, but he’s going to give his team a chance. Compared to QBs of years past, Peters has a real arm, plus he has some decent receiving targets. Since Peters isn’t much of a threat out of the pocket, I’d say watch out for Ricky Smalling, who is going to have a fun year with a guy who can get him the ball. But, in essence, while he’s not a game-changer, Peters is the best quarterback RIGHT NOW of the past half-decade for the Illini.
3) How much will the loss of RB Mike Epstein impact the team?
It sucks. It really does. It’s heartbreaking because he’s at three years of season-ending injuries now. And this one comes in Week 1! That’s not fair. He’s a big-play back and he’s fun to watch, and he committed to the team during the *shivers* Tim Beckman era, so he’s been through a lot. On the field, not much of a loss in my opinion. As long as Reggie Corbin is healthy, he might be the best back in the Big Ten. Ra’Von Bonner has had some big games toward the end of last season and was solid with a score against Akron. And Brandon Peters can run I guess! The Illini have a handful of backs though. Epstein is a great one, but if everyone else stays healthy, it’ll be alright.
4) Is there a position group or unit that looked better than you expected in the win over Akron?
The defense. Definitely. This is a unit that allowed 63 points in Big Ten play THREE times last season, so holding Akron to a single field goal is a big accomplishment. Also the defensive line was great, but, reminder, it was Akron. Illinois lost Bobby Roundtree to a spinal injury over the summer, and he was probably the group’s best player. But other guys are stepping up, and they sacked the Zips QB a handful of times.
5) What are the strengths and weaknesses of Illinois on each side of the ball?
On offense, the biggest strength is the line. Peters is going to be standing up a lot and won’t get sacked too often, which is nice. It also helps the running game. Yet, the offense has a huge weakness, and that’s the receiving corps. Even if I said they’ll be okay, this is a group that has been godawful the past few years. Hopefully that changes with Peters handling the ball, but until I see a chance, it’s a weakness. On defense, the secondary is still prone to allowing big plays and was struggling to tackle some Zips. But the line is great, and I’d watch out in the backfield all afternoon on Saturday.
6) What was the reaction of Illinois fans when this series with UConn was first announced?
I did some research, and found out this series was first announced in 2014! I was a high school junior in February 2014, and thought I was going to Mizzou. So I’ll try to speak for the fanbase still. They were probably excited. UConn doesn’t have a history of being a powerhouse, and Illinois has been prone to scheduling too many tough non-conference games in the past (North Carolina in 2015-16), so this was a welcome change.
7) Illinois has not won a road non-conference game in a very long time. Are you excited for that streak to end?
OH HECK YEAH! I was 10 the last time the Illini did it in 2007! It’s going to end! Yay!