Illinois defense prepares for California, Redbox match-up


Head coach Lovie Smith speaks to the media during the Redbox Bowl pregame press conference at the Hyatt Regency in San Francisco on Friday, Dec. 27. Photo by Jonathan Bonaguro.

By Tatiania Perry, Staff Writer

Illinois football is about to play in its first bowl game since 2014. The California Bears are in their second-consecutive bowl game.

The Illini started off the season plagued with the same things from the past few seasons.

The Illini opened their season with wins over the Akron Zips and the U-Conn Huskies but they’re some of the lowest-ranked teams in top tier-college football. But, began their four-game losing streak.

“From what I saw during that time was that we didn’t play well enough to win,” said Illini head coach Lovie Smith. “But we were up on Nebraska 14 points, Minnesota beat us but we didn’t have our quarterback during half of the game. Michigan jumped out but Brandon (Peters) didn’t play that game. We were down 28 points and we came back. We saw good things throughout that time to let us know we could be a good football team if we cleaned up some things.”

Illinois cleaned those things up and broke the losing streak with one of the biggest upsets of the season on Homecoming weekend. In front of students past a present, Illinois took down the then No. 6 Wisconsin and set the tone for the rest of the season.

Before the game, ESPN announcers said things like, “Illinois is the team to play when teams need a confidence boost.” But after the win, Illinois was the team to watch and Lovie Smith was a genius according to the same announcers.

The game lit a fire in the Illini and ignited a four-game win streak.

“I think they played really well as a team,” said California head coach Justin Wilcox. “If you look at offense, defense and special teams, they play well together within those units you can just tell they are well-coached and know what they are doing.”

But it was the Michigan State victory that ultimately brought Illinois to California.

Illinois trailed 28-3 in the second quarter and 31-10 at the conclusion of the third. In the final quarter, Illinois held Michigan to three points while they collected 27.

California started its season 4-0 with title wins over Ole Miss and Washington in the first four weeks. Then the Bears faced four straight losses of their own to Arizona State, Oregon, Oregon State and Utah.

California broke its losing streak by defeating Washington State, only to be blown out by USC the following week.

Cal’s bowl eligibility came in the last games of the season with victories over Stanford and the University of California Los Angelas in the final two weeks.

While Illinois typically relies heavily on Brandon Peters at quarterback, Cal has two reliable quarterbacks in sophomore Chase Garber and junior Devon Modster. Together the two Bears have collected 2,205 passing yards, 410 rushing years and 18 touchdowns.

Playmakers for the Bears offense are rounded out with Christopher Brown Jr., who’s picked up 943 yards and 11 touchdowns this season.

He’ll likely be a challenge for the Illini defense, but they’ve recorded 22 sacks, 18 forced fumbles, 12 interceptions, and four touchdowns this season.

“They do a great job taking the ball away, their turnover margin is good, they run the ball on defense, they have good players on offense, it’s a good football team,” Wilcox said.


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