2019 Rewind: A look back at Illinois’ fall season
January 5, 2020
As the whistle blew at the end of the fourth quarter in Illinois’ 35-20 loss to California on Dec. 31 in the Redbox Bowl, the 2019 season drew to a close. Before looking ahead to 2020, it’s worth reminiscing over the Illini’s performance this fall, as the program had its most successful season in half a decade.
Before the season kicked off, there were more than a few notable events that had a negative effect on the program. Georgia tight end transfer Luke Ford was unexpectedly ruled ineligible for the season by the NCAA. Defensive lineman Bobby Roundtree suffered a pool-related injury that would sideline him for the season, and four-star freshman athlete Marquez Beason suffered a season-ending knee injury in fall practice.
Aug. 18: Smith Center Opens
After boasting one of the worst facilities in the Power 5 conferences, the program opened the Henry Dale and Betty Smith Football Center next to Memorial Stadium. The building serves as a tool both to aid in current players’ recovery, game prep and recreation, while also impressing prospective recruits on their official visits to campus.
Aug. 31: Game 1, home vs Akron
Illinois opened the season with a resounding victory, crushing Akron 42-3.
Michigan transfer Brandon Peters began his Illinois career with 163 passing yards and 3 touchdowns and ran for another 41 yards and an additional score. Junior running back Mike Epstein returned after missing the large chunks of the previous two seasons with injuries and led the Illini with 45 yards on the ground.
USC transfers Trevon Sidney and Oluwole Betiku also had coming out parties, as Sidney caught Peters’ first touchdown pass as an Illini and Betiku registered 1.5 sacks. Standout linebacker Jake Hansen had a day to remember as well, registering both a fumble recovery and an interception. The win was punctuated by a major hit from newly eligible linebacker Milo Eifler, who sat out 2018 after transferring in from Washington.
Head coach Lovie Smith was pleased his team got out to a winning start.
“Offense has played good football for (a) long period of time, defense needed to step up and I thought they did,” Smith said. “Not pleased with the first drive, (Akron) had a couple of big plays in there. After that first series, took care of business, played the run well.”
Sept. 2: Epstein goes down
At his weekly press conference, Smith reported that Epstein had suffered his third consecutive season-ending injury, this time in one of his knees. The injury bug was far from done in decimating Illinois’ roster, however.
Sept. 7: Game 2, away at UConn
The Illini hadn’t won on the road out of conference in over a decade but ended that skid with a 31-23 win over the Huskies.
After falling behind early, it was Rod Smith and the offense that rescued the game for Illinois.
Peters threw four touchdown passes, and two went to USC transfer receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe, who unveiled his ability to make contested catches for the first time, a trait that would rear its head again later in the year.
With senior tailback Reggie Corbin out injured, it was the passing attack and late-defense that clinched the game as Dele Harding made a crucial fourth-quarter interception that allowed Illinois to run the clock out.
Smith felt his team showed great resiliency in the comeback win.
“When you win, you’re disappointed a little in your play, that was the case,” Smith said. “We didn’t start off the way we wanted to, but good football teams are gonna have to fight through adversity and get themselves (out of) a hole, and it’s really tough when you’re on the road and you get in the hole the way we did, but we fought back through it.”
Sept. 16: Game 3, home vs. Eastern Michigan
Easily the most disappointing moment on the field in 2019, Illinois dropped its first game of the year to Eastern Michigan, 34-31.
The offense was lethargic for long stretches, but got things together late and tied the game with 1:31 remaining, as Imatorbhebhe took over Illinois’ final drive, culminating in a 36-yard touchdown catch.
The Eagles were unfazed, however, and calmly drove down to kick a game-winning field goal as time expired.
Despite playing well, Imatorbhebhe couldn’t hide his frustration with the loss, postgame.
“I don’t feel like we played our best football at all,” Imatorbhebhe said. “It’s hard to find the good in this if I’m being honest because it just wasn’t good at all. If anything, we didn’t really play that well and we still almost beat a team that was better than we thought they were, so that shows the potential that we have.”
On the bright side for Illinois, Peters again put up an impressive state line with 297 yards passing, and Corbin returned to his 2018 form with 134 yards rushing and a touchdown. Tight end Daniel Barker also had an impressive performance for the third consecutive week, as he registered 90 yards receiving after catching touchdowns the previous two weeks.
Sept. 21: Game 4, home vs. Nebraska
Illinois showed an impressive level of offensive fire-power and was in control for long periods of the game, but Nebraska refused to go away and stole the game late, 42-38.
Corbin started things with a bang, rushing for a 66-yard touchdown on the opening drive, and Hansen recovered a fumble on Nebraska’s first possession, setting up an early two-score Illinois lead.
Unfortunately for the Illini, Husker quarterback Adrian Martinez came alive, throwing for 328 yards and rushing for another 118.
Wan’Dale Robinson cut the Illini defense open all game, and his touchdown ended up sealing the game with eight minutes left.
Most alarmingly, on a warm night in a prime-time game that seemed built for big passing stats, Peters threw for just 78 yards.
Imatorbhebhe continued to impress, however, registering yet another touchdown reception, his fourth in three games.
Freshman athlete Isaiah Williams received his first snaps as well but was held in check.
There were many opportunities for Illinois to get Nebraska off the field, but poor tackling kept many of the Huskers’ eventual scoring drives alive, something Smith lamented.
“(We) have to tackle better,” Smith said. “We had them in favorable third-down situations and missed tackles, and not being able to make some plays really hurt us.”
Oct. 5: Game 5, away at Minnesota
Peters suffered an early injury, and the Illini were shell-shocked from then on out. Redshirt freshman Matt Robinson couldn’t move the ball, and the Illini defense allowed 332 rushing yards and 40 points in a 40-17 loss.
A small victory for the Illini came in the form of two defensive touchdowns, one from Harding and Eifler respectively.
Smith saw similar flaws from the Nebraska game in the Minnesota loss.
“Don’t know what else to tell you,” Smith said. “How do big plays happen? Missed tackles. We’ve had too many missed tackles; we’ll continue to work on it.”
The blowout signaled the point of the season in which Smith’s seat felt the hottest.
Oct. 12: Game 6, home vs Michigan
The Illini defied national opinions and stayed in the game late with the Wolverines, but the maize and blue’s superior talent won out, as they pulled away in the fourth for a 42-25 victory.
Robinson got the start and looked much better, throwing for 192 yards and two total touchdowns.
“I thought it was pretty fun out there; I had a good time,” Robinson said. “Thought we played pretty well, came up a little bit short, but I thought as an offense we did a pretty good job.”
A rushing touchdown from Dre Brown cut the deficit to 28-23 early in the fourth, and for a brief moment, it felt as though an upset may be on the cards, but the Wolverines took care of business down the stretch.
Playing against a well-respected defense, Imatorbhebhe shined again, registering 102 yards and a touchdown.
Oct. 19: Game 7, home vs Wisconsin
Undoubtedly the highlight of the season and the game that saved Smith’s job, Illinois put together a complete performance and shocked the country, defeating undefeated No. 6 Wisconsin, 24-23.
Then walk-on receiver Donny Navarro made an impressive run-after-the-catch touchdown to get the offense going, and the Illinois defense tightened up, holding Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor well under his average yards per carry.
Late in the game, the Badgers appeared to have the game wrapped up as Kendric Pryor got open over the top, but back-up defensive back Devon Witherspoon tackled him from behind at the three yard-line, and Wisconsin eventually settled for a field goal. A late interception from Tony Adams gave Illinois excellent field position for a game-winning drive, and James McCourt kicked a 39-yard field goal as time expired to clinch the victory, earning himself a proper dogpile from his teammates.
“Honestly, I think going through my head was some oxygen because I was passed out at the bottom of the pile, supposedly,” McCourt said. “I got lifted up and I thought I woke up from a dream or something. It was unbelievable.”
Oct. 22: Sidney Done For Season
After missing multiple games, Trevon Sidney was ruled out for the season with a leg injury, opening the door for Navarro and freshman Casey Washington to see the field.
Oct. 26: Game 8, away at Purdue
In a wet and ugly game, Illinois took advantage of a shorthanded Purdue team and stole a 24-6 victory in West Lafayette.
The passing game was nonexistent, but Brown had a breakout performance, running for 131 yards. Tony Adams, who had been recently moved from safety to cornerback, made a crucial pick-six on a day where points were hard to come by.
The win brought the Illini back to .500, a sign of a second-half resurgence Smith was banking on.
“I’ll just to try to make the comparison (with) a football game. If you’re behind at the half, what has been decided? Nothing really,” Smith said. “It’s how you perform that second half of the game, and it’s how you perform the second half of the season. Our players buy into that. It also helps when you come out in the third quarter and you play well right away. It gets the momentum going, and that’s where we are.”
Oct. 30: Lere Oladipo Incident
Hana Renee Inman-Grabow, a woman claiming to be previously involved with defensive tackle Lere Oladipo, went public on her Twitter account with information and pictures alleging domestic abuse against Oladipo. The program addressed the situation, saying it was aware of the allegations, and Oladipo was eventually dismissed a few weeks later. He had previously not suited up for several games.
Nov. 2: Game 9, home vs Rutgers
Illinois cruised to a 38-10 victory behind a pair of Dre Brown rushing touchdowns, while Imatorbhebhe found pay dirt in the air again, catching a 52-yard touchdown.
Harding’s late pick-six put a resounding stamp on the victory, just one of many highlights from the linebacker’s stellar senior year, and total career.
“What can I say about Dele Harding?” Smith said. “Senior, captain, makes all of the calls, big hits, interceptions, touchdowns; (he makes) just outstanding plays.”
The win left Smith and company cautiously optimistic about making a bowl game, needing just one win out of the final three contests.
Nov. 7: Navarro Earns a Scholarship
After joining the program as a walk-on transfer from FCS school Valparaiso, Navarro was given a scholarship after stellar play in Sidney’s absence.
Nov. 10: Game 10, away at Michigan State
Illinois capped the largest comeback in school history with a touchdown pass from Peters to Barker with five seconds reaming to become bowl-eligible. After falling behind 28-3, the Illini offense broke out for 405 yards in the 37-34 win.
Peters threw for 369 yards, and 178 of those, including two touchdowns, went to Imatorbhebhe on just four catches. The pair also hooked up for a crucial fourth and 17 contested-conversion that was easily the most clutch play of the day.
The win put Illinois at 6-4 with two games remaining, and a conference championship berth was not out of the question yet either.
Nov. 23: Game 11, away at Iowa
After punching above its weight against Wisconsin and Michigan State, Illinois, minus a string of defensive starters, came back down to earth in a 19-10 loss at Iowa. The lone bright spot on the day came when Peters found Navarro on a perfectly executed wheel route for a 31-yard touchdown.
Though both offenses were subpar, Iowa found ways to kick field goals and held on for the win.
Nov. 30: Game 12, home vs Northwestern
While the Eastern Michigan loss may have been the most disappointing moment of the 2019 season, this game served as a close second, as Illinois was easily handled by a 2-9 Northwestern team that was winless in the conference.
Peters and Imatorbhebhe sat out with injuries and the offense mustered just 160 total yards.
“I just feel like we never really got into the groove of things,” said senior wide receiver Caleb Reams. “Thirteen plays in the first half is never good.”
It certainly wasn’t the way senior running back Reggie Corbin wanted to go out on Senior Day, as he ran for -10 rushing yards in the 29-10 loss.
Dec. 7: Illinois accepts Redbox Bowl Invitation
After missing out on the postseason every year since 2014, Illinois secured a berth in the Redbox Bowl against California.
Dec. 30: Game 13, Redbox Bowl vs California
Down pretty much every upperclassman contributor on both sides of the ball outside of Peters and Corbin, Illinois fought hard but fell to the California, 35-20.
Though he fell far short of expectations in 2019 after running for over 1,000 yards in 2018, Corbin rushed for 42 yards and a touchdown to bring a positive end to his Illini career.
Forced to rely on the likes of Carlos Sandy and Trenard Davis on the outside, Peters fought for 273 yards passing and a touchdown to Barker to complement his 80 rushing yards.
The Illini fell victim to more than a few tough officiating decisions on the day, highlighted by a confirmed targeting call against Eifler and a questionable spot on a Peters fourth-down run.
Despite the loss, Smith was proud of where his program had come from.
“There’s a lot to build on,” Lovie Smith said. “It’s a process, and as we continue to take steps with our program, a bar has been set. It was a lot of fun going to our first bowl game and we’re excited to see what the future can be.”
Though the season didn’t end how many wanted it to, it is undeniable that the program is in a much better place than it was 12 months ago. And with a new, world-class facility to go along with lots of talent coming in either through transfers, injuries or high school recruiting, the trajectory of the program appears to be pointing up heading into 2020.