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College Football: How Lovie Smith and the Illinois Fighting Illini are bringing the old school to the new school

As his beard got thicker and Lovie Smith went from your regular ol’ football coach to a legitimate style icon, a funny thing happened: The University of Illinois football team actually had a good season. Smith, a defensive coach by trade, took over the role of defensive coordinator after the resignation of Hardy Nickerson, and in his fourth year in Champaign, the Illinois defense finally performed up to scratch.

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Let’s go back in time a bit. Illinois has not been good for a long time — their last winning regular season was in 2007, the end of the Ron Zook era that saw them finish with back-to-back 7-6 campaigns only because of bowl victories. The Tim Beckman era then saw the team win 12 of 37 games. And following that, Bill Cubit went 5-7 in his one season as head coach.

Smith was hired before the 2016 season and inherited a defense that had finished 95th in expected points added (EPA) allowed per play in 2014 but then rebounded with a stunning 24th-place finish in 2015. However, the new defensive staff could not sustain any of that success; they would fall to 85th with the clean-shaven Lovie Smith in 2016 and remain 85th in 2017 before 2018 saw the bottom fall out as they fell to 125th.

When that luscious beard set in for the 2019 season, the Illinois defense improved big time, and their -0.075 EPA allowed per play mark put them 44th in the nation.

If Lovie were just running the defense du jour while producing this one-year bump, this would not really be a story. However, Lovie is actually staying true to his roots after bringing with him the Tampa 2 defense that he used in Chicago en route to three division titles, two NFC championship game appearances, one Super Bowl appearance and the 2005 NFL Coach of the Year award.

This particular defense is not popular at all anymore, so the fact that they finally broke through while sticking with it is meaningful.

Nobody ran more Cover 2 than Illinois last season, and it wasn’t even close. Lovie called this coverage 285 times — the next highest was 203 times from Florida International, and that was followed by 168 from Arizona State. Florida international is currently led by head coach Butch Davis, who coached in the NFL during the early 90s, and Arizona State is presently guided by Herm Edwards, who served the Kansas City Chiefs, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New York Jets between 1992 and 2008.

The Fighting Illini defense allowed just -0.163 EPA per play in this coverage, good enough for 12th in the FBS among teams that played at least 50 snaps of Cover 2. They ran almost 4% of all Cover 2 snaps in the FBS last season.

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