The Illinois Fighting Illini are finally turning the corner under Lovie Smith. The long-time NFL coach wasn't exactly on the hot seat, but it was starting to get warm after going 9-27 (4-23 in the Big Ten) over his first three seasons in Champaign. Heading into the 2019 season, Smith was given a contract extension which was questioned by the Illini faithful. And in the early weeks of the season, those questions grew louder.
Illinois started the season by winning its first two games over Akron and Connecticut. But after a four-game losing streak which saw the Illini fall to Eastern Michigan, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Michigan by a combined score of 158-111, it became very difficult to justify that contract extension. But after the Michigan loss, Illinois put together a 4-2 finish that included an upset of then-No. 6 Wisconsin, convincing victories over Purdue and Rutgers, and a come-from-behind win against Michigan State in East Lansing made possible by the largest comeback in program history (34 points).
The end result was a 6-6 record that earned Illinois its first bowl berth since 2014. The Illini have a chance to post their first winning season since 2010 if they can beat California in the Redbox Bowl out in Santa Clara, California, on Dec. 30. Illinois is one of nine Big Ten teams going bowling this season.
While the hard work of Smith and his coaching staff can't be ignored, there are also a variety of players who stepped up on the field to make this campaign possible. Here are the players who made the biggest contributions for the Fighting Illini in 2019.
Offensive MVP: Brandon Peters, QB
Despite missing some time due to injury, the Michigan transfer has completed 54.6 percent of his pass attempts for 1,611 yards (10th in the Big Ten) and 17 touchdowns (tied for 4th). Peters has posted a passer rating of 129.2 and has thrown just seven interceptions. He brought stability to the quarterback position which had been lacking during Lovie Smith's tenure after the departure of Wes Lunt. The best part is that Peters will be back to lead this offense again in 2020.
Defensive MVP: Dele Harding, LB
Smith prides his teams on their defense and Harding is a shining example of that. The senior led the Big Ten in both tackles (148) and was tied for second in interceptions (three) during the regular season. His big-play ability also was on display in the three fumbles he forced and his two defensive touchdowns. Harding can hold his own against both the pass and run, and will probably draw plenty of attention from NFL scouts and teams. Filling his shoes in 2020 will be easier said than done.
Best Newcomer: Josh Imatorbhebhe, WR
Some say his numbers were modest (33 catches, 634 yards, 19.2 ypr, 9 TDs), but the junior was effective for the Illini in his first season after transferring from USC. Imatorbhebhe also missed time with injuries during the regular season, but finished as the Illini's leading receiver. He's the main reason why Brandon Peters performed so well under center as he caught a touchdown pass in eight straight games. Imatorbhebhe also is expected to return in 2020.
Best Play(s) of the Season: Imatorbhebhe's two touchdown catches vs. Michigan State
For Illinois to pull off the biggest comeback in program history, it required some key plays, which Imatorbhebhe provided. His first TD catch came on the final play of the second quarter as the Illini cut the Spartans' lead to 18. His second came at the start of the fourth quarter during which Illinois outscored Michigan State 27-3 to complete the comeback. Imatorbhebhe will have one more chance to shine this season in the Redbox Bowl against a solid California secondary.
Best Performance by a Player: Team defense vs. Akron
I'd had to go with the team route for this category. The season opener for Illinois set the tone for how important this side of the ball would be for this team. This was hands down the Illini's best defensive game this season as they gave up a first-quarter field goal to the Zips, but nothing else from there. Lovie Smith's defense finished the game with six sacks, 12 tackles for a loss, two takeaways, and held Akron to just 1.7 yards per rushing attempt.
Best Game (Team Performance): Defeating Michigan State
This was the game that proved that the Illini can overcome obstacles, make the big plays when needed, and made them bowl eligible. The Illini are ushering in a new era after this monumental victory in East Lansing.
Defining Moment: Upsetting Wisconsin
If the Illini didn't break their nine-game losing streak to the Badgers back in October, the moment against Michigan State probably doesn't happen. This was also the game that broke the Illini's four-game losing streak and it couldn't have come at a better time. With doubt surrounding the team, the coaching staff, and even the administration at that time, defeating Wisconsin started the run that would change everyone's opinion and ultimately save the season. This win also is credited for ruining Wisconsin's College Football Playoff chances.
Biggest Surprise: Oluwole Betiku Jr., DE
In the wake of Bobby Roundtree's spinal cord injury, the team needed someone on the defensive line to step up and Betiku did exactly that. Like Josh Imatorbhebhe, Betiku transferred to Illinois from USC, where he only played in two games and didn't even register as much as a tackle. But after sitting out last season due to the NCAA transfer rules, Betiku made the most of his chances this season and erased any concerns bout the Illini pass rush. He leads Illinois with eight sacks this season (also has 33 tackles), which puts him sixth in the Big Ten. And with Illinois set to lose some defensive talent after this season, having Betiku back in 2020 will be a huge plus for this team.
Biggest Disappointment: Fifth straight loss to Northwestern
Everything was in the Illini's favor heading into that Thanksgiving weekend matchup with the archrival Wildcats. Northwestern came into that week having lost eight of nine games, were struggling on both sides of the ball, and dealing with numerous injuries. Instead of adding to Northwestern's misery, the Illini gave up 378 rushing yards and committed two turnovers as they extended their losing streak in this series. Beating Northwestern is a must in 2020.
Senior(s) That Will be Missed the Most: Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown, RBs
As the quarterback position became a revolving door early in Smith's tenure, the only thing Illinois' offense could do consistently over the previous three seasons was run the ball. Corbin spurned the NFL draft to return for his senior season this year, while Brown's freshman year (2016) was eliminated due to injury. When on the field, both players were extremely productive, entering the bowl game with a combined 3,183 rushing yards, 24 rushing touchdowns. Corbin also has posted 343 career receiving yards while Brown has been a weapon on special teams (1,075 kick return yards). Rest assured that both Corbin and Brown will be sorely missed next year.
Player(s) to Watch in 2020: Ra'Von Bonner, RB and Jake Hansen, LB
The running back position won't be totally barren next year. Bonner has already proven himself as he has produced 888 career yards from scrimmage and 11 total touchdowns in his career thus far. He'll be a senior next season, and with him projecting as the likely starter, there will be a degree of continuity in the backfield. Bonner is a strong runner and a dependable pass catcher. The Illini's running game shouldn't see much drop-off next season.
Hansen will be heading the defense next year. This season he's third on the team in tackles (72), second in sacks (3.5), leads the Illini in forced fumbles (7), and is second in fumble recoveries (3). The linebacker position is a staple of Smith's defense so having Hansen back for another year is a huge plus.
Biggest Offseason Question Mark: How will Illinois replace key players on defense?
In addition to Harding, defensive backs Stanley Green and Nolan Bernat, along with defensive linemen Jamal Milan, Tymir Oliver, and Kenyon Jackson will all be departing Champaign after this season. So that's 506 tackles, 16 sacks, 14 pass breakups, seven interceptions, and 15 forced fumbles this season alone that the Illini must replace. Hansen along with Betiku and defensive back Sydney Brown will likely serve as the anchors for Illinois next season but some other guys must step up and take on bigger roles.
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.
(Top photo courtesy of @IlliniFootball)