Two games in 2019 — at home against Wisconsin and on the road at Michigan State — changed the trajectory of Lovie Smith’s Illinois football program.
On Oct. 19, the No. 6 Badgers came to Champaign as 31-point favorites — and left with a 24–23 loss courtesy of James McCourt’s last-second field goal. Just 2–4 before Wisconsin came to Champaign, Illinois got a boost it desperately needed.
Three weeks later, the Illini fell behind by 25 points in the first half at East Lansing. Past Illinois teams would have given up and lost by 40. Or worse. But led by quarterback Brandon Peters and receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe, Illinois rallied for an improbable 37–34 victory over the Spartans. The bowl-clinching win marked the biggest comeback in school history.
It was the kind of performance that made Smith eager to start the 2020 season. “We just like our team,” Smith says. “I talked about 15 freshmen starting three years ago. Those are the seniors now. We’re older now. We have great leadership at every position.”
And hope for better days ahead. When the 2020 season starts, Smith promises his guys will be ready.
Previewing Illinois' Offense for 2020
For the first time in the Smith era, Illinois brings back a full-time starting quarterback. After arriving last summer as a transfer from Michigan, Peters quickly took control of the offense.
“He’s got a very good understanding of what we’re trying to do,” offensive coordinator Rod Smith says. “He’s seen a lot of different looks, a lot of different schemes, a lot of different game plans thrown at him.”
His teammates expect even more from Peters in 2020.
“I think he can be a great player,” center Doug Kramer says. “He has the arm strength to throw the ball anywhere. I think you are going to see a big year from B.P. I think the world of him. He’s going to fight until he can’t anymore.”
The Illini missed spring ball because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But bowl practices gave Peters extra time to work with the team.
Peters will look early and often to USC transfer Imatorbhebhe, Illinois’ leading returning receiver.
“To me, he’s one of the centerpieces of our offense moving forward,” Rod Smith says of Imatorbhebhe. “He’s a difference-maker when he’s healthy. I watched him run by just about every corner in our league."
Tailback Mike Epstein suffered a torn ACL in the opener against Akron. After an aggressive rehab, the Florida product is expected back in time for the 2020 season.
Tight end will be an Illini strength, with returning starter Daniel Barker joined by Georgia transfer Luke Ford.
Four of five starters return on the offensive line. Kramer is the unquestioned leader. He showed off his strength on YouTube during the spring, pushing a pickup truck as part of his workout routine.
Tackles Alex Palczewski and Vederian Lowe are also fourth-year starters.
“Any time you can return that battery, the line and the quarterback, that’s a plus for your football team,” Rod Smith says.
Previewing Illinois' Defense for 2020
Before the 2019 season, the unit lost star defensive end Bobby Roundtree to a career-ending spinal injury suffered in a swimming accident. Roundtree returned to campus and provided constant inspiration for his team.
The strength of the defense is at linebacker, where Jake Hansen and Milo Eifler return.
"I think we know we can play with anyone in the country just based on some of the things we did last year,” Hansen says. “We just have to put it all together every Saturday and be a team that’s more consistent.”
The secondary is another strength, led by cornerback Nate Hobbs and safeties Tony Adams and Sydney Brown.
Cornerback Marquez Beason was on track for a big rookie season before suffering a knee injury in training camp. He is expected to be full go in time for the opener.
Illinois added two new coaches on the defensive staff, hiring Al Davis (tackles) and Jimmy Lindsey (ends) to work with the line.
Previewing Illinois' Specialists for 2020
Blake Hayes, part of the invasion of Australian punters, is coming off an All-Big Ten season. Hayes figures to receive strong consideration for the Ray Guy Award.
McCourt will go down in Illinois history as the guy who beat No. 6 Wisconsin with a last-second kick. He can convert from long range and has earned the trust of the staff.
Since he took over in 2016, Lovie Smith had been pointing to 2020 as Illinois’ potential breakout season. The team happily jumped the gun a bit, reaching a bowl in 2019.
The three-game losing streak to close the season kept Illinois from its first winning season since 2011. But with a favorable schedule, including three winnable home non-conference games to open up, the Illini are dreaming bigger. Smith welcomes back a veteran offense led by Peters and four returning regulars on the line. If the defense continues to take the ball away at a high rate (it was fourth nationally in turnovers produced), Illinois will contend for another bowl bid.
National Ranking: 62
(Top photo by Derek Neal/Illinois Athletics)