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Big Ten preview: Illinois Fighting Illini

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North Carolina's Bug Howard (84) romps for 27 yards after a pass reception in the third quarter as Illinois' Eaton Spence (27) and Taylor Barton (3) try to bring him down on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015, at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. Credit: Courtesy of TNS

North Carolina’s Bug Howard (84) romps for 27 yards after a pass reception in the third quarter as Illinois’ Eaton Spence (27) and Taylor Barton (3) try to bring him down on Sept. 19 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, North Carolina Credit: Courtesy of TNS

Illinois Fighting Illini

Location: Champaign, Illinois

2014 record: 6-7

Head coach: Bill Cubit (interim coach, 3-1)

2015 record so far: 3-1

Record vs. OSU since 2005: 1-9

What’s happened so far in 2015: Illinois, coming off a losing season, started out strong with a 52-3 win against Kent State and a 44-0 shutout against Western Illinois. Its big numbers on offense dropped off with a 48-14 loss to North Carolina, and a last-second field goal saved it from losing two consecutive games with a 27-25 win against Middle Tennessee.

Key offensive player: Redshirt sophomore quarterback Wes Lunt is the lynchpin of the Illini offense. Lunt threw four touchdowns to four different receivers against Kent State and threw for more than 300 yards against Western Illinois. When Lunt is solid in the pocket, the team delivers wins, and when he doesn’t, they don’t. In its only loss thus far, Lunt threw for no touchdowns and an interception against North Carolina, proving the team needs Lunt to play like he did the first two weeks of the season to even begin thinking about contending in the Big Ten.

Key defensive player: Dawuane Smoot, a junior defensive end, has been a playmaker for Illinois this season. Up until the Illini played Middle Tennessee, Smoot was the only defensive player to earn a sack, showing both his importance to this defense as well as the need for more playmakers on the line. Smoot had a career-high three tackles for loss — two being sacks — in Illinois’ 27-25 win against Middle Tennessee, and only continues to cement his place as the best player on this otherwise lackluster defense. He will be a major key as the Fighting Illini enters a string of Big Ten games against more high-powered offenses.

Weaknesses: This team has struggles both on and off the field. The team is trying to find a way to be a presence in the Big Ten while having an interim coach and losing one of its key players, Mike Dudek, a true sophomore wide receiver who broke several Big Ten records last year. However, its biggest weakness is the offensive line. This team has significant depth at running back, but the O-line seems unable to assist the run game and falls flat against mediocre defenses, proven most prominently in the loss to North Carolina. This leaves the offense limited options, often relying too heavily on Lunt and receivers to score.

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