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Big Ten preview: Illinois Fighting Illini

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Ohio State defensive lineman Michael Hill (77) brings down Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt (12) in the first half at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Ill., on Saturday, Nov. 14, 2015. Ohio State won, 28-3. (Kyle Robertson/Columbus Dispatch/TNS)

Ohio State defensive lineman Michael Hill (77) brings down Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt (12) in the first half at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Ill., on Saturday, Nov. 14, 2015. Ohio State won, 28-3. (Kyle Robertson/Columbus Dispatch/TNS)

Location: Champaign, Illinois

2015 Record: 5-7 (2-6 Big Ten)

Head Coach: Lovie Smith

2016 Record So Far: 1-1

Record vs. OSU since 2006: 8-1 (OSU won in 2010, but had season vacated)

What’s happened thus far in 2016

In Week 1, The Fighting Illini took on the Murray State Racers at home, where they cruised to a 52-3 victory in their first game in the Lovie Smith era. Illinois did not fare as well in Week 2, losing at home to the North Carolina Tar Heels, 48-23.

Key offensive player

The Illini are expecting good things from sophomore tailback Ke’Shawn Vaughn, even though he was outgained by backup running back Kendrick Foster through the team’s first two games. Vaughn had 165 yards on 32 carries with two touchdowns in the team’s first two contests. Despite having half as many carries as Vaughn, Foster put up 172 yards through the first two games with two scores. However, Foster’s numbers are a bit skewed as most of those yards came on a pair of 56-yard touchdowns in the game against Murray State. Vaughn averaged 7.7 yards per carry against UNC and is expected to be a big part of the offense moving forward.

Key defensive player

The Illini’s biggest strength on defense is their defensive line. In their game against Murray State, they held the Racers to -10 yards on the ground. The unit combined for six sacks and 11 tackles for a loss. The defensive line is led by senior defensive tackle Gimel President. President has recorded seven tackles and two sacks through the team’s first two games.

Weaknesses

One of Illinois’ glaring struggles this season is going to come from the play of its secondary. In its game against the Tar Heels, the Illini defense allowed UNC quarterback Mitch Trubisky to complete 19 out of 24 passes with two touchdowns. Trubisky was 5-for-9 with 92 yards in third-down situations, converting two out of four third-and-long scenarios. The Illinois secondary could become even more of an issue, depending on the severity of the undisclosed injury to senior safety Caleb Day.  Another big issue so far for the Illini are penalties. Against North Carolina, Illinois was flagged 13 times, resulting in 99 yards’ worth of penalties. The Illini will open Big Ten play at Nebraska on Oct. 1.

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