Illinois defense goes through changes before weekend matchup


Austin Yattoni

Illinois linebacker Dele Harding (9) celebrates with defensive lineman Bobby Roundtree (97) after making a tackle during the game against USF at Soldier Field on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018.

By Tatiania Perry, Staff writer

Memorial Stadium will celebrate the University’s annual Dads Weekend as well and Military Appreciation Day on Saturday.

However, the recent situation for Illinois has offered little to celebrate. After a 63-33 loss to push the season record to 3-5, Illinois football defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson resigned due to health-related issues.

Nickerson missed a game last season in which head coach Lovie Smith stepped in and did the play-calling, and Smith is confident he can step into the role again for the remainder of the season.

“It’s tough right now,” said offensive lineman Nick Allegretti . “The team is obviously going through a lot with the loss of the coaching, but that’s when you have to have leaders step up.”

Minnesota comes into Champaign with a 4-4 record after defeating Indiana 38-31 on Friday night.

Saturday’s game will mark the 71st meeting between the two teams. In the overall series, Illinois trails 29-38-3, but the Illini are 17-16-1 all-time against the Gophers in Champaign, though Minnesota has won seven of the last 10 meetings.

Last season, the Golden Gophers defeated the Illini 24-17 on Minnesota’s Homecoming in Minneapolis. The game was tied 10-10 in the fourth quarter until Minnesota began to pull away following the debut of former Illini quarterback Cam Thomas as a true freshman.

As for this weekend’s quarterback, speculation still looms. After last week’s collision with former Illini Tre Watson, current true freshman quarterback M.J. Rivers is currently undergoing concussion protocol. After the hit to Rivers, AJ Bush stepped back in to finish the game and threw an 84-yard pass to Dominic Stampley, the third-longest passing play in Illinois history.

On the ground, running backs Reggie Corbin (8.03) and Mike Epstein (6.85) rank first and fifth in the Big Ten in yards per carry. Corbin ranks second in FBS while the currently injured Epstein sits at 14th.

The Illini are averaging 226.9 rushing yards per game, good for 23rd in FBS and third in the Big Ten. The mark is over 120 rushing yards per game better than last season’s average per game (105.6).

Although the statistics show quite a bit of offensive improvement, the score at the end of the game does little to reflect this.

“What didn’t go wrong Saturday?” Corbin said. “We didn’t score enough points on the offensive side; that’s just on us. We have to do better.”

The Illini defense has been underwhelming throughout the season with only spatterings of strong performances. However, it is ranked No. 24 nationally in turnovers gained per game (1.88).

For the Illini to make a postseason bowl game, they must win at least three of their last four games.

“There’s so much football left to go, and we’ve gone through an awful lot, but eventually, you get over the hump,” Smith said. “We want to be one of those teams that went through some things but came out of it even stronger and ended up finishing it up the right way.”


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