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

Dec 12, 2020; Evanston, Illinois, USA; Northwestern Wildcats running back Cam Porter (20) runs against the Illinois Fighting Illini during the first half at Ryan Field. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

No. 14 Northwestern runs over Illinois

Behind a potent rushing attack, No. 14 Northwestern defeated visiting Illinois 28-10 on a rainy and wet Saturday afternoon to win the Land of Lincoln Trophy at Evanston, Ill.

The victory is the Wildcats sixth straight in the rivalry series, their most consecutive victories over the Fighting Illini.

The bad weather played a crucial role in the game, forcing both teams to play mostly on the ground. The teams combined for only 34 pass attempts, while rushing 93 times.

Northwestern (6-1, 6-1) had 411 rushing yards, the most since running for 444 against Illinois in 2003. Evan Hull rushed for 149 yards, freshman Cam Porter had 24 carries and 142 yards in his first major action of the year and Peyton Ramsey added 47 rushing yards and 82 passing yards.

Illinois (2-5, 2-5) rushed for 77 yards in the first quarter, but struggled to gain any more yards until garbage time.

After missing a 32-yard field goal on the second drive of the first quarter James McCourt redeemed himself on the next possession, nailing a 39-yard field goal into that same wind to give Illinois a 3-0 lead.

After the field goal, Northwestern zoned in. On the first play of the second quarter, Ramsey found Charlie Mangieri in the end zone for a 2-yard score to go up 7-3.

Later in the quarter, the Wildcats went on a lengthy drive. Across 17 plays and over seven minutes, Northwestern slowly trudged down the field.

The Wildcats picked up three fourth-down conversions on the drive and had 12 runs of four yards or fewer, but reached the end zone via a 2-yard rush from Porter to cap the 64-yard excursion.

Porter scored his second touchdown on the first possession after halftime on an 18-yard run, and Hull found the end zone on a 32-yard run later in the quarter to go up 28-3 and put the game out of reach.

By the start of the fourth quarter, Northwestern was resting most of its starters. Illinois added a touchdown on a 46 yard pass from Isaiah Williams to Brian Hightower.

–Field Level Media

Nov 21, 2020; Columbus, Ohio, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback Justin Fields (1) throws during the second quarter against the Indiana Hoosiers at Ohio Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

No. 3 Ohio State cancels game at Illinois

No. 3 Ohio State canceled its scheduled football game at Illinois on Saturday, the school’s leadership announced late Friday night.

The cancellation came after another round of testing for COVID-19 on Friday released more positives within the program, Ohio State said in a release. The Buckeyes (4-0) were to have a noon start against the Fighting Illini at Champaign, Ill.

Ohio State wasn’t going to travel to Illinois until Saturday morning.

The Big Ten Conference has no room in its calendar for a makeup date. The game will not be played this season.

“We have continued to experience an increase in positive tests over the course of this week,” Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said in a statement. “The health, safety and well-being of our student-athlete is our main concern, and our decision on their welfare will continue to be guided by our medical staff.”

The Buckeyes (4-0) were ranked fourth in the first release of the College Football Playoff rankings released on Tuesday. However, Ohio State could be left out of the Big Ten’s conference championship game if it is forced to cancel either of its final two games.

The Big Ten’s coronavirus protocols include the stipulation that teams must play a minimum of six games this season to be eligible for a division title and a spot in the conference title game. The Buckeyes’ game at Maryland on Nov. 14 was already canceled due to COVID-19 issues with the Terrapins.

Ohio State will need to play its final two games — Dec. 5 at Michigan State and Dec. 12 vs. Michigan — to remain eligible for the title game.

Ohio State said the decision to cancel was made jointly by Smith, president Kristina M. Johnson and head team physician Jim Borchers in consultation with the Big Ten. The school announced an immediate pause to team activities, which will not resume until “medical staff determines it is safe to do so based on protocols established by the Big Ten Conference.”

Earlier Friday, Ohio State announced head coach Ryan Day would miss the game because of his own positive test for COVID-19 with assistant head coach/defensive line coach Larry Johnson to serve in the head role on an interim basis.

On Friday, several media reports indicated an unknown number of Buckeye players in more than one position group had tested positive for COVID-19. Ohio State had not confirmed any number of positive tests within the program or listed players or staff members affected except for Day.

–Field Level Media

Nov 7, 2020; Columbus, Ohio, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes head coach Ryan Day(right)and assistant coach Kerry Coombs before the game between the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at Ohio Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Ohio State coach Day tests positive for COVID-19

Ohio State football coach Ryan Day tested positive for COVID-19 and won’t coach the No. 3 Buckeyes at Illinois on Saturday, the school announced Friday.

The school isn’t planning to fly to Champaign until Saturday morning as it waits on more test results, according to reports.

Defensive line coach Larry Johnson, who also is associate head coach, will run the squad in place of Day.

“Coach Ryan Day is one of the individuals who has tested positive,” the school said in a statement. “He is in isolation and will not travel to Illinois or coach the team. Assistant head coach/defensive line coach Larry Johnson will serve as interim head coach of the Buckeyes on Saturday.”

Day would reportedly need to isolate for 10 days and be symptom-free for at least 24 hours before he can return to his coaching duties.

One day earlier, there were reports that an unknown number of players in more than one position group have tested positive for COVID-19, leaving in doubt whether the Buckeyes (4-0) could play this weekend.

Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith reiterated that the squad wants to play Saturday’s game against Illinois (2-3).

“I have spoken with coach Day, and he is doing well physically,” Smith said. “I feel terrible for (Day) and for the members of the program who have been diagnosed with a positive test.

“Coach Day and this team have been true leaders in handling things so well throughout this pandemic. Our team wants to play this game, and we’re going to do everything we can to help make this happen. All of the decisions on the welfare of our student-athletes and staff members will continue to be guided by our medical staff.”

Day, 41, is the latest head coach to test positive for COVID-19. Alabama coach Nick Saban also tested positive earlier this week and won’t coach the top-ranked Crimson Tide in Saturday’s Iron Bowl clash against Auburn.

–Field Level Media

Oct 24, 2020; Columbus, Ohio, USA; Nebraska Cornhuskers quarterback Luke McCaffrey (7) drops to throw during the third quarter against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Ohio Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois, Nebraska look to build behind young QBs

What do Isaiah Williams and Luke McCaffrey do for encores?

As first-time starting quarterbacks, they led Illinois and Nebraska to their first wins of a truncated football season last week. They’ll try to make it two in a row in a Big Ten West Division matchup Saturday at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb.

Both redshirt freshmen were more dangerous with their legs than their arms in getting the zero out of their respective team’s win column. Williams set a Fighting Illini single-game record for a quarterback with 192 yards on 31 rushes in a 23-20 win at Rutgers, while McCaffrey led the Cornhuskers with 67 ground yards in their 30-23 home victory over winless Penn State.

Williams hit only 7 of 18 passes for 104 yards, but did save two big completions for the game-winning drive. He found Casey Washington for a pair of 16-yard gains, teeing up James McCourt for a 47-yard field goal with three seconds left that gave Illinois (1-3) its first lead of the year.

Making Williams’ performance even more notable was that he’s the Fighting Illini’s fourth starter in four games. Incumbent Brandon Peters started a season-opening 45-7 loss at Wisconsin before COVID-19 sidelined him.

Matt Robinson got the call in a 31-24 loss to Purdue but didn’t make it out of the first quarter before injury put him on the shelf. Coran Taylor played well in Robinson’s stead against the Boilermakers, but was miserable in a 41-14 loss to Minnesota as he hit just 6 of 17 passes for 106 yards while taking four sacks.

“No one has cycled through quarterbacks more than we have,” Illinois coach Lovie Smith said. “Isaiah gave us a spark on offense.”

As did McCaffrey for Nebraska.

He accomplished a bit more in the air than Williams, completing 13 of 21 attempts for 152 yards and a 45-yard touchdown pass to Zavier Betts that helped the Cornhuskers (1-2) to build a 27-6 halftime lead.

McCaffrey replaced veteran Adrian Martinez, who started 23 games over the past two-plus seasons with diminishing returns. Martinez’s efficiency and completion percentage has declined from his freshman year, culminating in a 12 of 27, 125-yard effort in a Nov. 7 loss at Northwestern.

“That decision was one of the hardest I’ve ever made,” Nebraska coach Scott Frost said of benching Martinez, a two-time team captain. “I thought considering it was (McCaffrey’s) first start, he did a lot of good things. There’s a lot there to build on.”

Ironically, Martinez has played some of his best football when facing Illinois. He accounted for 446 total yards in last year’s matchup, throwing for 328 yards and rushing for 118 as the Cornhuskers survived a 42-38 shootout in Champaign. In overcoming a 35-21 third quarter deficit, Nebraska finished with a whopping 674 yards of offense.

The Cornhuskers have dominated the all-time series with a 13-3-1 advantage, including six of seven since joining the Big 10 before the 2013 season. The teams are scheduled to start the 2021 season in Dublin, Ireland, with the Illini serving as the “home” team.

–Field Level Media