CHAMPAIGN — After a dominating season-opening win last week against Akron, the Illinois football team travels halfway across the country, intent on snapping a lengthy non-conference road losing streak.
The Illini (1-0) play UConn (1-0) at 2:30 p.m. CT (CBS Sports Net) and will be looking for their first non-conference road win since a 41-20 win in 2007 at Syracuse.
“(UConn head coach) Randy Edsall is an outstanding football coach," Illinois head coach Lovie Smith said. "Any football team that he’s coaching, there’s a certain type of play that you expect: Disciplined football, hard-nosed football. They had a tough one opening up the season, but that’s what it is.
“For us, it doesn’t matter who our opponent is, we’re going on the road. We haven’t had a lot of success on the road."
Here's what to watch for:
Snapping the streak
From a podium in the eighth floor press box at Memorial Stadium, Lovie Smith pretended he didn't know the authenticity of an ugly trend that Illinois has seen take shape in non-conference road games.
"I don't know if it's true or not, but it sounds pretty good to tell the team," Smith said.
Of course, Smith knew it was true. Not all of those losses fall on him. In fact, just one does: At South Florida in 2017.
"There's a lot at stake, and good football teams can't just play at home," Smith said. "You have to be able to go on the road, so I'm anxious to see how we respond in the second game."
The Illinois players know about the streak — seven straight non-conference losses on the road — but they don't much seem to care. They carry the weight of last season on their shoulders as motivation, but stand strong in their assertion that this is a different team.
“If we just keep practicing how we’ve been practicing and keep the intensity up, and just keep doing what we’ve been doing, this game shouldn’t be a problem for us," defensive back Nate Hobbs said. "We should snap that streak easy. We don’t care about the past too much."
Improved UConn defense?
But Smith and Co. have a chance to snap that streak against a UConn team that beat FCS opponent Wagner by three in their season-opener and were one of just two teams in all of FBS last year to finish worse than Illinois in total defense — UConn was last in the country.
Led by Notre Dame transfer D.J. Morgan (8 tackles), the Huskies held Wagner to 185 total yards last week and showed promise in Week 1 after a dismal season last year. The Huskies have a new defensive coordinator, Lou Spanos, who replaced Billy Crocker.
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Spanos was an analyst for Alabama last season, was a linebackers coach for the Tennessee Titans from 2014-2018, was the defensive coordinator at UCLA in 2012 and 2013 and spent 15 seasons before that on the Pittsburgh Steelers' staff.
Illinois offensive coordinator Rod Smith isn't much paying attention to last year's team.
“As you look at ‘em, I think they do a good job," Rod Smith said. "They’re well coached."
Illinois offensive looking to keep going
Quarterback Brandon Peters had a stellar start to his Illinois career last year with three passing touchdowns and a rushing touchdown. Peters, though, looks at one red zone trip with back-to-back incompletions that caused Illinois to settle for a field goal attempt.
Either way, the passing game showed its potential and the running attack continued to thrive under Rod Smith — even without running back Mike Epstein out for the season with a knee injury.
“Coach Rod is a great play caller and he’s going to play off what’s going well," Peters said. "Obviously our run game was great all day and that opened up the pass game. There was some little stuff in there that also worked as well."
Running back Reggie Corbin didn't play after the second quarter last week after suffering a hip pointer. The amount of carries he gets, or needs to get, remains to be seen.
Illini defense tries to back up performance
After holding Akron to 192 yards last week — the second fewest in the Lovie Smith era, the Illini defense can prove that performance wasn't an aberration.
Illinois stopped the Akron run game, holding the Zips to 64 yards on the ground. To turn in another performance like that means the Illini will have to slow down UConn running back Kevin Mensah, who rushed 36 times for 144 yards and a touchdown last week.
But there's a certain level of confidence, and humility, the Illini will take with them to UConn after last week's win.
“We knew we could play like that," Hobbs said. "Our meeting wasn’t any different from the meetings we’ve had all summer and the meetings leading up to this game because we knew we were going to go out there and handle business like that.
“That does just set the bar for next week. Next week we’re going to try to pitch a true shutout, which we know we can do."