Illinois is bowl-eligible for the first time under former Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith, after turning in 3-9, 2-10, and 4-8 seasons. Can they continue this upswing with a bowl victory over California?
So how do you turn around an awful Illinois team? Well, it certainly doesn’t hurt to take in a number of super talented USC transfers. Star wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe, 5-star defensive end Oluwole Betiku Jr., and wide receiver Trevon Sidney are all playing their first season at Illinois after transferring from USC. Additionally, starting quarterback Brandon Peters transferred from Michigan after starting a few games for them in 2017. The transfers on this team have clearly made the biggest impact to the turn-around of this team.
Illinois has not been particularly good in their out of conference road games. This year, they narrowly beat one of the worst FBS teams, UConn (who has been considering a drop down to the FCS level), which was only their third such victory in the 21st century. The other two road wins: Syracuse in 2007, and... California in 2001.
After stumbling out to a 2-4 start (the two wins being 0-12 Akron and 2-10 UConn), they reeled off a 4 game win streak, including two huge upsets against Wisconsin (as 30.5-point underdogs) and Michigan State (as 15.5-point underdogs). Wisconsin win was Illinois’ first Big Ten win over a ranked opponent since 2007 (when they upset #1 Ohio State), and the 25 point comeback against Michigan State is the largest in Illinois history. This is clearly a team that can struggle against bad teams, but also upset some very good ones too. This is concerning, because Cal is clearly the best team to ever play the game, in my totally unbiased opinion. And since Illinois beat Wisconsin, and Wisconsin is playing in the Rose Bowl, this is basically a proxy Rose Bowl for Cal, and thus represents the most important game for Cal in years.
Although Illinois has increased their overall talent level through transfers, the Illinois player with the most NFL potential: kicker James McCourt, i.e. James and the Giant Leg. His 39 yard game-winner against Wisconsin was actually the shortest kick of his career at that point. He is 4/5 from 50+ this season. His 57 yard field goal against EMU was the 2nd longest field goal this year, behind... Wisconsin K Zach Hintze’s 62 yarder against Purdue. What are you feeding your kickers over there in the Big Ten?
As always, let’s take a position-by-position look at the Illinois offense. For the purposes of this article, I’m going to report on everyone listed as questionable for the bowl game, and omit the players listed as out for the season.
Michigan transfer Brandon Peters is considered a pro-style quarterback, but he shows some sneaky athleticism and possesses the ability to scramble. He runs like an oversized gazelle, in other words. Illinois likes to run a zone-read offense, and so it’s been important for Peters to be able to run the ball himself (although this has led to injuries that have caused him to miss the Michigan and Northwestern games). Before I get into his throwing ability, let’s took a look at some Peters runs:
A couple notes on Peters’ runs. Peters typically rolls out to his left when he’s trying to escape pressure, but he demonstrates better accuracy on roll outs to his right. This could potentially be because he is usually rolling out to his right on play-action passes and to his left escaping pressure. Without PFF-like stats to tell me exactly (not that I trust them anyway, after some PFF dork snubbed Evan Weaver), I’d say Peters rolls out to his left under pressure at least 90% of the time, and it definitely seems like the type of thing a good defense like Cal’s would capitalize on, assuming Cal can get pressure on Peters.
Another thing I liked about Peters was that he does a good job on scrambles to keep his eyes up and look for open receivers, in contrast to typical dual-threat QBs:
One thing to notice when Peters runs the ball is that he often has poor ball security (watch as he palms the ball as he runs from pressure), and he has fumbled the ball a few times on sacks and scrambles. Peters tends to try and force throws when he’s being sacked, often for intentional grounding, but also for potential interceptions.
Although Peters sometimes makes bad decisions in the process of being sacked, that’s not to say he gets flustered by pressure. In fact, Peters strikes me as pretty ambivalent about pressure. Obviously it’s good for a defense to make the quarterback throw earlier than he (or his receivers) are ready, but Peters isn’t the type to start seeing ghosts and playing worse when defenses are getting to him.
To put that another way, he sometimes makes good throws under pressure, and bad throws without pressure.
Michigan State has an excellent defensive line, and a big part of their defensive gameplan is to pressure opposing quarterbacks. And yet, Peters is not afraid to take a hit when he throws the ball, and he made a number of nice throws under pressure leading the big comeback:
Instead of pressure being an important factor, it seems to me that getting into a good passing rhythm is more crucial to Peters’ success throwing the ball. He runs very hot and cold passing the ball. Here we see Peters convert 3rd and 19 as Eastern Michigan dropped 8 into coverage specifically to stop this:
And other times, he will completely and inexplicably miss an open receiver:
One thing I noticed was that Peters tends to sail his passes high when he does miss. And although I just said he tends to “inexplicably” miss, a lot of it is quite explainable: he often gets happy feet in the pocket, and his passing mechanics tend to break down, and so he doesn’t step into his throws sometimes the way that he should.
Another thing I liked about Peters was that he often does a good job of throwing to his receivers as they are going into their breaks, and not after (the same cannot be said about Peters’ backups).
A big weakness of Peters’ is his tendency to lock onto his primary receiver and not see other open receivers. This is definitely a dangerous habit against a secondary as talented as Cal’s, and will definitely result in interceptions if he can’t even be bothered to try and look off a safety. It can also be a bit painful to be so focused on your primary read:
Since Peters missed the last game with a concussion and is officially listed as questionable (at least at the time of this writing), I figured it was worth mentioning a bit about the backup quarterbacks. To be perfectly frank, he has a bit of a weak arm, and his passes tend to hang in the air for too long. However, he is a more athletic runner than Brandon Peters.
I don’t know if this is the right read on the zone-read play, but Robinson makes it work:
While Robinson is definitely not going to torch the Cal secondary deep, he does a good job of buying time in the pocket and improvising a bit.
The other quarterback to see time in Peters’ absence is the highly-touted freshman QB Isaiah Williams, who is definitely a run-first quarterback, somewhat in the mold of UCLA’s QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson (with less fumbling). Take that as you will.
The offensive line is probably the most experienced unit on this team. The center Doug Kramer and left guard Kendrick Green are solid offensive linemen at their respective positions. Alabama transfer Richie Petitbon is the only offensive linemen not returning with a ton of experience, but he’s an Alabama transfer, so he’s started every game this season for Illinois. The right guard Alex Palczewski the only non-freshman weak link.
Of course, the offensive line aren’t the only people that can block well:
Illinois is much better at run-blocking than pass-protecting, and they play a crucial role in success of the run game, as we’ll see shortly.
The run game is the strength of this offense. Illinois is not great on 3rd downs, and struggles especially when they get behind the sticks. Illinois relies on having an effective run game to make 3rd downs manageable in order to keep drives alive.
Illinois packs a powerful one-two punch in the run game with Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown. They have similar running styles, but they are complementary.
Let’s start with Reggie Corbin. By far his best skill is his cutting ability:
I love runners like Reggie Corbin that can create their own yards in open space. He has a ton of highlights like the one above against similarly talented defenders. Corbin has good vision, and does a good job of waiting for blocks to develop.
And of course, what running back wouldn’t be complete without great acceleration and straight-line speed:
One drawback of Corbin’s is that he’s not the best in pass protection:
Although Corbin is the starter and considered to be the more NFL-ready back, I have to say that I was more impressed with RB Dre Brown. Despite having a similar size to Corbin, Brown was a much more physical runner, and tended to be more consistent throughout the season.
Brown was far more likely to use his frame and keep his legs moving to churn out some extra yards:
Brown shows excellent balance and an ability to stay upright despite contact:
Brown, like Corbin, is also a good runner in open space:
Another difference between the two backs is that Dre Brown is also more of a receiving threat, and Illinois sometimes utilizes Brown in the passing game in a fashion similar to how Washington State involves their running backs, e.g. swing passes, screen passes, or other plays to get him the ball in open space:
The backup to Corbin and Brown is Ra’Von Bonner, who has a similar power running style as the first two.
I found this interesting because a lot of teams that rotate multiple running backs do so because they have different running styles, and I found it unusual that all of Illinois’ running backs fit the same mold.
Illinois went through the most attrition at the wide receiver position, and so we’ve seen (most of) the backups become the starters during the course of the season. Ricky Smalling was one of Peters’ favorite targets early in the season, but he is out of the season due to a knee injury. USC transfer WR Trevon Sidney was the team’s most elusive receiver and a very crisp route runner, and did a great job getting open, but he too is out for the season after a knee surgery. These injuries left Illinois with one clear star receiver: Josh Imatorbhebhe.
Probably not surprisingly, USC transfer WR Josh Imatorbhebhe is the most obvious physical freak athlete on the offense. Imatorbhebhe is the type of receiver Illinois loves to target when he is isolated in single-man coverage:
Here’s another big play from Imatorbhebhe, but note that the totally unnecessary penalty to negate the play is a common theme in this Illinois offense— an unnecessary penalty that doesn’t affect the play, but negates it anyway, e.g. ineligible man downfield, holding by a player far away from the ball, etc.
Here’s a play where Imatorbhebhe just uses brute force to beat a tackler:
Imatorbhebhe is reported to have some absurd high jump stats, and he does a good job of high-pointing the football.
Josh Imatorbhebhe is a big, physical receiver, and he does a great job catching the ball with his hands away from his body, demonstrating strong hands.
Even good defenses like Michigan State’s would occasionally miss an assignment, and Imatorbhebhe would make them pay. The Cal defense, particularly the safeties, can’t afford to take a play off against someone like Imatorbhebhe:
Because of Imatorbhebhe’s speed, size, vertical, and ability to make catches in tight coverage, Imatorbhebhe is the clear deep threat receiver from Illinois:
Imatorbhebhe is the clear #1 receiver, but Cal is known for shutting down a team’s top receiver (although I am a lot less confident with NFL-bound safety Ashtyn Davis out with an injury), so we can expect to see some other players.
The receiver with the second most catches on the team behind Imatorbhebhe is Ricky Smalling, and I’d be happy to include some Ricky Smalling highlights, but he hasn’t played the entire second half of the season after a season-ending injury.
The season’s most reliable receiver behind Imatorbhebhe is the tight end, Daniel Barker. Barker is a big-bodied receiver who can make catches in tight space:
In the wake of injuries to Illinois’ starting receivers, a couple unheralded receivers stepped up in their place. Most notable are walk-on receiver Donny Navarro and freshman receiver Casey Washington.
Navarro has quietly improved over the course of the season, scoring his first touchdown at the FBS level against Wisconsin:
Navarro isn’t the biggest target, but he is fast enough to get space and he has good hands:
Similarly, WR Casey Washington also has good hands and the ability to make catches in traffic:
One area of improvement for Casey Washington is his body awareness, as he’s not the best at finding the boundary or getting his feet in bounds on catches down the sideline.
Senior receiver Caleb Reams has seen limited action during his career, but he’s seen the most action in the past 4 games, culminating in the most targets in his career in the Northwestern game. He’s the backup to Imatorbhebhe, and although he’s not the fastest receiver, he possesses the size of a tight end:
I touched on it a bit in the introduction, but let’s get back to James “and the Giant Leg” McCourt. This section is pretty simple. McCourt has a cannon of a leg, and he’s #1 in the FBS with 50+ yard field goals made this season. In the NFL these days, you need to be able to kick the long field goals, and McCourt can boom them. Here’s McCourt tying the Illinois record with a 57-yard kick early this season:
Not to mention, he’s also clutch. A short little 39 yard field goal to beat #6 Wisconsin? No problem:
If you’re not kicking a field goal from at least Siberia, don’t even bother wasting McCourt’s time with it. He has missed a couple short field goals (it can be hard to aim a cannon), but to be fair, many of those shorter field goals he missed were in inclement weather.
They also have a stellar punter in Blake Hayes. He’s #10 in the FBS with number of punts inside the 20, which itself doesn’t tell you too much, until you see him repeatedly punting balls to the 1 yard line:
RB Dre Brown typically returns kickoffs, and although he’s not the home run threat kick returner that Cal has faced before (Ole Miss’ Jerrion Ealy, Oregon’s Mykael Wright, USC’s Velus Jones, etc), he’s still #16 in the FBS in kickoff return average with 26.3 yards/return.
While Cal probably has the edge in both offense and defense over Illinois, special teams is the one facet of the game where Illinois is clearly superior. If this is a close game, special teams could potentially tip the game to Illinois, either with a field goal kicked from Oregon, or winning the field position battle with Cal by continually pinning Cal inside the 5.
Matchups to watch
There are two interesting matchups to watch for the Illinois offense.
The first is to see how the running backs, Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown, fare against unanimous All-American linebacker Evan Weaver. Evan Weaver is the immovable object of the Cal defense, and with 20+ tackles in this game (something he’s done 3 times already this season), he can break Luke Kuechly’s single-season tackle record. Weaver is all over the field shutting down opposing offenses, and always seems to know where the play is going before it happens. Because of Weaver’s run stopping ability, offenses have game-planned around Evan Weaver, forcing him into pass protection more often (hence fewer tackles in recent games), an area in which he is considered comparatively weaker.
The other important matchup to watch is to see how WR Josh Imatorbhebhe does against the Cal secondary, absent future early round NFL draft pick safety Ashtyn Davis and safety Trey Turner. Cal has given up early touchdowns on uncharacteristic blown coverages (for example, Stanford’s opening touchdown this year when AShtyn Davis was out). Cal is currently thin in the secondary, listing corner Cam Bynum as the backup safety, so it’s not a given this game that Cal’s secondary will shut down Josh Imatorbhebhe the way they typically do against teams with a single star receiver (e.g. TCU’s Jalen Reagor, Colorado’s Laviska Shenault, etc).
There is little doubt that Cal has a much better defense than Illinois’ offense, but the sudden lack of depth for the Cal defense is a bit concerning. Cal will need to contain Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown, and not give up too many big plays to Josh Imatorbhebhe. In my opinion, this game will come down to whether the Cal offense can minimize mistakes against the Illinois defense. Stay tuned for the defensive preview.