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The Only Questions: Q&A with The Champaign Room

The Champaign Room is here to give us an inside look at the Fighting Illini

Illinois v Rutgers Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Your Spartans are headed to Illinois in major need of a victory. The last time we saw this Michigan State team walk away with a win it was mid September. The 17th to be exact, on a night where this team was up 36-7 on the Fighting Irish. A time where the Spartans were ranked No. 12 and looked to be primed for another great season.

Now, both the Fighting Illini and Spartans are 2-6, and set to clash this Saturday November 5th at 12 p.m. Both teams are just looking to build and improve at this point in the season. With not a whole lot to lose on either side we expect this to be the type of game where players leave it all on the field.

This week The Only Colors is joined by Trevor Vallese, from The Champaign Room where you can find anything Illinois all the time. Trevor has been kind enough to answer a few of our questions prior to gametime.

In 2016 The Fighting Illini have seen some new faces on the sideline. Lovie Smith (Head Coach), Garrick McGee (Offensive Coordinator), and Hardy Nickerson (Defensive Coordinator) are all in their first year of coaching at the University of Illinois. What were your expectations going into the season with this new staff? And through the first 8 games with a 2-6 record what is your opinion of the staff now?

Following Lovie’s hire back in March, some fans’ expectations for this season rose immensely. Even Illini beat writers were calling for seven or eight win seasons. Personally, I was not in that camp. I called for a 5-7 campaign with an eye towards the future of what this program could be under Smith. Looks like even that prediction will be too optimistic, as the Illini would need to win every game left on their schedule to get bowl eligible. The fact of the matter is that this isn’t Lovie’s team or Lovie’s players. These are Tim Beckman’s players that were given less than two weeks to adapt to an entirely new offensive and defensive system before spring ball began. So while some fans are obviously disappointed that 2016 isn’t going the way they hoped, I wouldn’t say there are any jumping off the Lovie bandwagon just yet because it’s far too early in the rebuilding process. Rome wasn’t built in one day, and I think this fanbase is willing to give Smith the benefit of the doubt for now.

Following up on the coaching, Lovie Smith was a great acquisition by the Fighting Illini, as a head coach in the NFL he is two games above .500 at 89-87(.506). He has gone to two Super Bowls, once as the defensive coordinator for the 2001 St. Louis Rams, and another time as the head coach for the 2006 Chicago Bears. While he was unable to obtain a ring in either of those trips, getting to the Super Bowl is a victory in its own right and is extremely difficult to get there. Assuming the football program is willing to give him a grace period for his first year at Illinois, what do you expect from Lovie Smith long term as a head coach? Being that he was also a long term head coach for the Chicago Bears (2004-2012) do you feel that will have a big impact on recruits coming to Illinois?

As mentioned above, the fanbase has big expectations for Smith long-term in Champaign. This year is a wash, but it’s Year One of a rebuilding process that was a mess to begin with. The general consensus from fans is they want to see year-to-year improvement under Smith that eventually leads to bowl game appearances by his third of fourth season in charge. There isn’t anything markedly different about the Fighting Illini this season than what fans of the program are used to seeing, but just the fact that there is a light at the end of the tunnel is keeping folks calm and optimistic. As for recruiting, Lovie hasn’t had even a full six months on the recruiting trail yet, so too early to tell. But being able to walk into homes and say that he has taken kids to Super Bowls certainly doesn’t hurt Lovie’s reputation.

Illinois is currently ranked No. 61 in total defense, Michigan State clocks in at No. 57 for total defense as well. Both teams are giving up just about 400 yards per game, neither of these team's defense is its strong point. Do you think we can expect a shootout in Saturday's game due to the defense's inability to stop other teams offenses from scoring at will?

It wouldn’t surprise me. For Illinois to be involved in a shootout that would mean their offense would have to be good too, though. But I’ll save that for later. The defense started out the year strong; their first two series of the season resulted in interceptions and they had a positive turnover margin for quite a while. But their secondary has been a rotating carousel of players, and they’ve allowed far too many yards on the ground. If I had to single out their struggles on this side of the ball it would be giving up massive plays to opposing RB’s. They have a lot of coverage issues and leave huge holes in the secondary and pay for it. If Michigan State wants to expose the Illini D I would suggest running the ball down their throats because the holes will be there.

Will we see Wes Lunt return from injury against Michigan State this weekend? If not when can Illini fans expect him back this season if at all?

Lovie is very hush about injuries throughout the week. He doesn’t even release pregame depth charts anymore. It’s unclear whether Lunt will be able to play this weekend, but he has been involved in practice in some capacity this week, so that’s a good sign. Needless to say the Illinois offense is very different with Jeff George Jr. under center, and not in a good way. They’ve scored just 24 points in the last two games combined.

Michigan v Michigan State Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

Running back Kendrick Foster is currently sixth in the Big Ten averaging 116.3 all purpose yards per game. His counterpart redshirt freshman Reggie Corbin is averaging 7.8 YPC. Since the Spartans played Notre Dame their defense has given up an average of 198 YPG to opposing squads. This would seem to be good news for the Fighting Illini, what do you think we will see from these two explosive backs?

Both Foster and Corbin have been pleasant surprises this season for Illinois, and they might just be the team's best playmakers on offense. Foster is more of a downhill runner who trucks his way through defenders and gets the tough yards on third down when the team needs it. Corbin, on the other hand, is a much more elusive back who makes his living on screen plays and outside runs. Nebraska coach Mike Reilly called him a “fast little bugger,” and I think that describes Corbin perfectly. The carries are distributed pretty equally between Foster and Corbin right now, and if they can capitalize on a poor Spartans run defense they could put up big numbers on Saturday.

Earlier in the week news was released that Michigan State's best option at quarterback, Brian Lewerke, suffered a broken leg during the end of last weekend's game with Michigan. Tyler O'Connor easily has the most experience on the team. In situations like these where Mark Dantonio is unlikely to release a depth chart now how does Defensive Coordinator Hardy Nickerson draw up a game plan for this defense?

I think Nickerson’s defensive game plan has remained the same throughout most of the season. Even though it is unclear what Michigan State might be featuring on offense, the Illini like to bring pressure with their impressive defensive line, which features three potential NFL prospects in Dawune Smoot, Chunky Clements and Carroll Phillips. Nickerson likes to show mostly a 4-2 look and occasionally brings pressure from his linebackers (one of which is his son, also named Hardy Nickerson). One of the primary problems for this Illinois D has been far too many gaps in the coverage; the Spartans could pull off a lot of successful slant routes if the Illini give away inside leverage and leave some holes open up the middle.

It is no secret this is a rough year for Illinois and Michigan State, what will be the key elements for the Fighting Illini to walk away the victor?

With both of these teams struggling like they are, I think the Illini need to get out to an early lead on Saturday. They’ve had trouble maintaining early leads against the likes of North Carolina, Purdue, Nebraska and Minnesota, so Illinois needs to jump on the Spartans early and shut the door on their hopes of coming away with a road victory. The other key for the Illini will be having a successful day running the ball. If Kendrick Foster and Reggie Corbin can bust out some huge runs then I think Illinois might have a decent chance at a victory against Michigan State, which is something I never thought I’d be saying this year.

Who will win the game? What is the score?

I think MSU will pull out a two score victory, but the Illini will come to play. The Spartans have had their struggles this season to be sure, but they’re better than Illinois and showed it with a close loss to No. 3 Michigan last weekend. If Wes Lunt is under center I think that changes everything for the Illini, but all indications are that it will be Jeff George Jr., which means it could be a long day for the Illinois offense. Michigan State 31, Illinois 17.

Thanks again to Trevor Vallese and everyone over at The Champaign Room!