Sep 7, 2019; East Hartford, CT, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini linebacker Jake Hansen (35) sacks Connecticut Huskies quarterback Jack Zergiotis (11) in the second quarter at Pratt & Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

LB Jake Hansen returning to Illinois for 2021 season

Feb 29, 2020; College Park, Maryland, USA;  American sports broadcaster Rece Davis stand curtsied before the between the Maryland Terrapins and the Michigan State Spartans is at XFINITY Center. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Linebacker Jake Hansen said Monday he is returning to Illinois for a sixth season after initially declaring for the 2021 NFL Draft.

Hansen, who led the nation with 14 takeaways over the past two seasons, made the announcement in a video message posted on the Illini football program’s Twitter feed.

“The 2020 football season wasn’t exactly how I imagine my time at Illinois to end,” Hansen said. “After extensive talks with Coach (Bret) Bielema and the University of Illinois staff, I have decided that I have unfinished business in the Orange & Blue. I am excited to get back up to Champaign and get to work with my teammates and my new coaches. Go Illini!”

Hansen will be one of 21 “super seniors” on the 2021 Illinois roster, players who will be using the extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I am excited for Jake to come back to the Fighting Illini family,” said Bielema, who was hired in December. “During my conversations with Jake it was easy to see how passionate he is about the game of football, his teammates and the University of Illinois. We’ve got an outstanding group of seniors that have chosen to come back to Illinois.”

A Butkus Award semifinalist in 2019 and a second-team All-Big Ten selection in 2020, Hansen has registered 243 tackles, 26 tackles for loss, seven sacks, 10 forced fumbles, six fumble recoveries and three interceptions in 41 games with the Illini.

Hansen earned his undergraduate degree in kinesiology and will continue pursuing a master’s degree in recreation, sport and tourism.

–Field Level Media

Nov 3, 2019; Baltimore, MD, USA; New England Patriots defensive line coach Bret Bielema  stands win the sidelines before the game against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Bielema announced as new coach at Illinois

Illinois named Bret Bielema as its new head coach on Saturday, quickly filling the role left vacant by the firing of Lovie Smith last week.

The Illinois native, who previously coached at Wisconsin and Arkansas, will received a six-year deal with an annual salary of $4.2 million.

“Illinois and the Big Ten is home for me, and I can’t be any more excited about the opportunity in front of me with the Fighting Illini,” Bielema said. “We want to build a program that makes Illini Nation proud and regain the passion that I’ve seen when Illinois wins.”

Bielema, 50, owned a 68-24 record (.739) in seven seasons with the Badgers (2006-12) and 29-34 (.460) in five seasons with the Razorbacks (2013-17). His teams are 4-5 in bowl games, including back-to-back losses in the Rose Bowl during the 2010 and 2011 seasons.

Bielema was a defensive consultant to the New England Patriots in 2018 and served as defensive line coach last season. He then joined the New York Giants and their new head coach Joe Judge, who was previously New England’s special teams coordinator.

“Bret’s blue collar work ethic and genuine, authentic manner will allow him to form strong connections to his players and staff and positive relationships in our community and our state,” athletic director Josh Whitman said. “These qualities, combined with his commitment to education and his track record of success, give me great confidence in his leadership of our football program.”

Illinois fired Smith after five seasons on Sunday.

Smith, 62, took over the Fighting Illini in the 2016 season, and his teams were 17-39 (10-33 Big Ten). His best record was 6-7 in 2019, a season that ended with a 35-20 loss to Cal in the Redbox Bowl.

The Illini haven’t finished their regular season with a record above .500 since 2007, when they were 9-4 and represented the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl — a 49-17 loss to Southern California.

–Field Level Media

Oct 31, 2020; Champaign, Illinois, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe (9) celebrates running back Mike Epstein   s touchdown during the first half against the Purdue Boilermakers at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois WR Imatorbhebhe enters 2021 NFL Draft

Illinois wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe declared for the 2021 NFL Draft on Thursday and will not play in Saturday’s season finale at Penn State.

The 6-foot-2, 220-pound redshirt senior leads the Fighting Illini (2-5) with 22 catches for 297 yards and three touchdowns.

After transferring from Southern California, he caught 33 passes for 634 yards and nine touchdowns in 10 games 2019.

“My time here exceeded my wildest expectations and I leave here knowing that I am forever a member of the Illini Nation. Thank you for taking me in a year ago and giving me a chance to reclaim my dream,” Imatorbhebhe wrote on Twitter. “… I want to announce that I am officially declaring for the NFL Draft. I wish the team and my brothers nothing but the best.”

Illinois fired coach Lovie Smith on Sunday. Acting head coach Rod Smith will lead the Fighting Illini against the Nittany Lions (3-5).

–Field Level Media

Oct 31, 2020; Champaign, Illinois, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe (9) celebrates running back Mike Epstein   s touchdown during the first half against the Purdue Boilermakers at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois WR Imatorbhebhe enters 2021 NFL Draft

Illinois wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe declared for the 2021 NFL Draft on Thursday and will not play in Saturday’s season finale at Penn State.

The 6-foot-2, 220-pound redshirt senior leads the Fighting Illini (2-5) with 22 catches for 297 yards and three touchdowns.

After transferring from Southern California, he caught 33 passes for 634 yards and nine touchdowns in 10 games 2019.

“My time here exceeded my wildest expectations and I leave here knowing that I am forever a member of the Illini Nation. Thank you for taking me in a year ago and giving me a chance to reclaim my dream,” Imatorbhebhe wrote on Twitter. “… I want to announce that I am officially declaring for the NFL Draft. I wish the team and my brothers nothing but the best.”

Illinois fired coach Lovie Smith on Sunday. Acting head coach Rod Smith will lead the Fighting Illini against the Nittany Lions (3-5).

–Field Level Media

Oct 31, 2020; Champaign, Illinois, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe (9) celebrates running back Mike Epstein   s touchdown during the first half against the Purdue Boilermakers at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois WR Imatorbhebhe enters 2021 NFL Draft

Illinois wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe declared for the 2021 NFL Draft on Thursday and will not play in Saturday’s season finale at Penn State.

The 6-foot-2, 220-pound redshirt senior leads the Fighting Illini (2-5) with 22 catches for 297 yards and three touchdowns.

After transferring from Southern California, he caught 33 passes for 634 yards and nine touchdowns in 10 games 2019.

“My time here exceeded my wildest expectations and I leave here knowing that I am forever a member of the Illini Nation. Thank you for taking me in a year ago and giving me a chance to reclaim my dream,” Imatorbhebhe wrote on Twitter. “… I want to announce that I am officially declaring for the NFL Draft. I wish the team and my brothers nothing but the best.”

Illinois fired coach Lovie Smith on Sunday. Acting head coach Rod Smith will lead the Fighting Illini against the Nittany Lions (3-5).

–Field Level Media

Oct 31, 2020; Champaign, Illinois, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe (9) celebrates running back Mike Epstein   s touchdown during the first half against the Purdue Boilermakers at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois WR Imatorbhebhe enters 2021 NFL Draft

Illinois wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe declared for the 2021 NFL Draft on Thursday and will not play in Saturday’s season finale at Penn State.

The 6-foot-2, 220-pound redshirt senior leads the Fighting Illini (2-5) with 22 catches for 297 yards and three touchdowns.

After transferring from Southern California, he caught 33 passes for 634 yards and nine touchdowns in 10 games 2019.

“My time here exceeded my wildest expectations and I leave here knowing that I am forever a member of the Illini Nation. Thank you for taking me in a year ago and giving me a chance to reclaim my dream,” Imatorbhebhe wrote on Twitter. “… I want to announce that I am officially declaring for the NFL Draft. I wish the team and my brothers nothing but the best.”

Illinois fired coach Lovie Smith on Sunday. Acting head coach Rod Smith will lead the Fighting Illini against the Nittany Lions (3-5).

–Field Level Media

Nov 21, 2020; University Park, Pennsylvania, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin gestures to an official during the third quarter against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Beaver Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Penn State attempts to complete U-turn with bowl bid

Penn State can end the season with four wins in a row when the Nittany Lions host Illinois as part of the Big Ten’s Championship Week schedule, a last chance for conference teams to play before bowl season.

Penn State (3-5) takes the field Saturday on the heels of wins over Michigan, Rutgers and Michigan State the past three weeks. A win Saturday night at Beaver Stadium could propel the Nittany Lions into a bowl game. They have turned things around after an 0-5 start.

It will be the latest game ever in a calendar year at Penn State. The previous record for a game played so late in the year at home was Dec. 7, 1968 against Syracuse.

“We had to play very differently,” Penn State head coach James Franklin said, “and it took us a little bit of time to find our rhythm.”

The Nittany Lions found some rhythm in last Saturday’s 39-24 win over the Spartans. They rallied from a 21-10 halftime deficit to win.

“We’ve played great second-half football, we’ve blown people out; we’ve had comebacks, we’ve had all different types of wins, and a lot of them. And over the last three weeks, we’ve gotten back to that identity,” Franklin said. “The last three weeks we have found ways to win, which is really what we’ve done for seven years.”

Penn State had success using two quarterbacks last week. Junior Sean Clifford threw for 232 yards and two touchdowns and ran for another as part of his 48 rushing yards. Sophomore Will Levis completed all three passes he threw for 54 yards and also ran for a score.

“We’ve been saying for a while that we’ve got two quarterbacks that we want to use,” Franklin said. “I think we can do more of that. We want to be more balanced with how we’re using Will and we continue to talk about that, so I was glad to see that happen (Saturday). We need to do more of it.”

The Fighting Illini (2-5) come into central Pennsylvania with a new head coach after Lovie Smith was fired last Sunday following a loss to Northwestern. The acting head coach is former offensive coordinator Rod Smith, who inherits a team with two straight defeats and was 17-39 in Smith’s five-season tenure.

Rod Smith has to find a way to get Illinois ready to play after such major change in the program.

“A lot of emotions and mixed feelings going on, but at the same time preparing our guys to play a very good football team in Penn State. Trying to get back to normal and back to work for the week,” Smith said Monday.

“We will get through this together and we’re going to make the most of it. If we have one more ride together, we’re gonna ride,” Smith added. “We’re going to try to make practice fun like we always do. Basically you treat this like a bowl game, and you never know if you will make one or not. We will come out, prepare and attack this game and try to let the players have fun with it.”

–Field Level Media

Dec 30, 2019; Santa Clara, California, USA;  Illinois Fighting Illini head coach Lovie Smith during the fourth quarter against the California Golden Bears at Levi's Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois fires Smith after five seasons

Illinois fired football coach Lovie Smith after five seasons, the school announced Sunday.

He will not coach the season finale next week against an opponent still to be announced by the Big Ten, athletic director Josh Whitman said. A school statement said a national search for the next coach will begin immediately.

Offensive coordinator Rod Smith will coach in the season finale.

Smith took over the Fighting Illini in the 2016 season, and his teams were 17-39 (10-33 Big Ten.) His best record was 6-7 in 2019, a season that ended with a 35-20 loss to Cal in the Redbox Bowl.

The Illini (2-5) lost Saturday to No. 14 Northwestern, 28-10.

Smith, 62, played linebacker and defensive back at Tulsa (1976-79) before turning to coaching. He was the defensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams (2001-03), then was hired to coach the Chicago Bears.

In Smith’s nine seasons in Chicago, his teams were 81-63. He was NFL coach of the year in 2005, after the team went from 5-11 in his first season to 11-5. The Bears won the NFC championship in 2006, losing Super Bowl XLI to the Peyton Manning-led Indianapolis Colts, 29-17.

He was fired after the 2012 season when the Bears started 7-1 but finished 10-6 and failed to make the playoffs for the fifth time in six seasons.

Smith also coached the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to an 8-24 record in the 2014-15 seasons.

The Illini haven’t finished their regular season with a record above .500 since 2007, when they were 9-4 and represented the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl — a 49-17 loss to Southern California.

Illinois is the third Power Five conference school to be searching for a new coach, following Vanderbilt and Arizona.

–Field Level Media