B1G Rule of Three: 2017 Illinois Fighting Illini Edition

Posted by on in Big Ten Conference Blog

The rule of three is an old writing premise that suggests everything is better in threes – that the number three helps engage the reader and helps them remember the story and connect to it.

The rule has stood the test of time. Think about all of the things that come in threes: little pigs, musketeers (the book and the candy bar), kings of Orient are, and original Star Wars movies.

So looking at this year’s Big Ten football season, we’re going to break down each B1G team with threes in mind – three things to remember (or forget) from last season, three things to look forward to this season, and three big games.

Let’s go in alphabetical order, starting with Illinois, which had a problem with threes in a year ago…

Three Things From 2016

1. Three and out: Fun fact, Illinois was absolute awful on both sides of the ball when it came to three and out. The Fighting Illini were close to dead last in the FBS in both offensive and defensive drives that ended in three plays. When your offense can only stay on the field for more than three plays 29 percent of the time, that’s awfully tough on a defense to make stops… and that led to…

2. Lopsided losses: Illinois got smacked around good and often in 2016. North Carolina hung 48 points on them in week 2. The Illini lost to Michigan by 31, Wisconsin by 45, and even in-state rival Northwestern was able to win by three touchdowns. There’s more to add to this list, but no need to be cruel. No one is expecting Illinois to be amazing in 2017, but how about a little more competitive?

3. Beating teams they should: For as bad as Illinois got whooped in 2016, the Illini did manage to beat Murray State, Rutgers, and Michigan State. The first two were definitely games Illinois should have won. Plus the Illini took advantage of a Michigan State team in the midst of an identity crisis. The one that got away was Purdue, losing by three in overtime. That game aside, Illinois didn’t suffer an upset.

Three Things for 2017

1. Lovie Smith: Ok, Ok, Lovie Smith’s first season in Champaign didn’t exactly go well. But let’s not forget this is Lovie Smith… a guy who has coached in a Super Bowl. Expectations are rightfully high for Lovie at Illinois, but let’s hope his seat isn’t too warm after this season, because there wasn’t exactly a stockpile of talent for the coach to work with. Lovie prided himself on defense when he was with the Bears, so expect to see fewer games where Illinois gives up 30-plus points… eventually.

2. The QB Situation: Illinois has, um, experience at quarterback this season. One could make the argument it’s not the kind of experience you want behind center. Both Jeff George, Jr., and Chayce Crouch got time at quarterback in 2016, but neither were particularly accurate and neither threw more touchdowns than interceptions. And the best of the offensive line from a year ago is gone. For the quarterbacks’ sake let’s hope whoever wins the job has time in the pocket so he can develop into the type of starter this offense needs to succeed.

3. Running back tandem: For all the concerns about the quarterback position in 2017, you won’t have to worry about who the QB is handing the ball off to this season. The Illini return a pair of powerful running backs in Reggie Corbin and Kendrick Foster. The duo combined for more than 1,200 yards last season, and averaged nearly six yards per carry. That’s pretty impressive but may be difficult to duplicate when defenses know where your bread is buttered. That said, Corbin and Foster are going to need to bring it if Illinois is going to score points and not have three-and-outs. Both should also play an important role in the passing game because the screen is going to be an important weapon, at least early on.

Three Big Games

1. At Purdue (November 4): A trip to West Lafayette is likely Illinois’ biggest game of the season. Why? Because if Lovie Smith’s team is going to show any signs of improvement in year two of Lovie Ball, the Illini will need to beat an inferior team on the road. Away games are tough to win in the Big Ten, but Ross-Ade Stadium provides the perfect atmosphere for Illinois go away from home and get a victory.

2. Nebraska (September 29): The Cornhuskers are certainly not the same powerhouse program they once were, but beating Nebraska is still a big deal because Nebraska is still a household name. This is the conference opener for Illinois, and it comes after a trip to South Florida, where the Illini will likely get smacked around by the Bulls. If that happens, it will be interesting to see how Lovie’s team responds.

3. Northwestern (November 25): Time to roll out the old cliché “this is Illinois’ bowl game.” Let’s face it, unless something completely unforeseen happens, Illinois is not going bowling this season. The Illini were 3-9 a year ago, and there aren’t three additional winnable games on this year’s schedule. Northwestern could be positioning itself for a nice bowl trip or possibly a division title, and that would make a win in a rivalry game that much sweeter for Illinois.