Editor’s Note: The following is a Q&A between Josh Yuen, editor in chief of The Daily Californian, Tatiania Perry, sports columnist for The Daily Illini and Jared Farmer, senior beat reporter for The Daily Illini. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Josh Yuen: Illinois went 6-6 in the year, but everybody seems super happy. What has Coach Lovie Smith done to create this kind of culture here, where everybody’s just ecstatic to be in this game?
Tatiania Perry: He said we will win, and I think that was a very important part (of) his campaign, because we did come from not necessarily a losing team and a losing attitude, but we weren’t necessarily a group of winners. … they weren’t the No. 1 recruits in the country, they weren’t the people that people really wanted. They were the fighters who fought for their position, to get to where they are, and so he created this culture of “Yeah, we aren’t the best of the best, but we will be one day, and if you guys stick with me and you stick with the plan, you’ll get there eventually.” This is the first step.
JY: The big face in the room that everyone on our side has been talking about is quarterback Brandon Peters. I know he’s been banged up lately, but looking at the season as a whole, what is his skill set and what are his strengths?
Jared Farmer: Well, he can throw. He certainly can throw.
TP: In the past, we haven’t had a consistent quarterback, and we’ve been relying very heavy on (running back) Reggie Corbin and I think the biggest thing we’ve been missing is an arm. We didn’t have a quarterback with an arm until we got Peters, and with Peters we do get to use our receiving corps. We do get to kind of see those longer passes and seeing what’s happening downfield rather than immediately going to Corbin and seeing what Corbin can do. Now, we have a different mode of reliability and it really helps our offense open up, and it really helps us not have to rely on the defense. They do get tired, and in the past we have been a very defensive heavy game and we have to take away the ball — and we’re still that — but now we get to divide the game a little bit more evenly.
JY: It was a long season but the game that everyone talks about is the Wisconsin game. What was the significance of that win beyond just rushing the field? To the program, how much did that mean win?
TP: From the moment they won against Wisconsin … they were a completely different team. Where you in the past, you’d see the parts but they wouldn’t work together. They finally came together. It was just like they needed that confidence to understand that they could win. They needed to know that this was possible.
JF: The Wisconsin win in and of itself is impressive, but it’s easy to write that off as like “Oh, that was a fluke. Oh, that was just because it was homecoming and all the alums were there and it was just the perfect atmosphere to do that,” but then you have the Purdue game. (It) was a statement, a statement type game — they went to their home crowd (in) cold conditions for the most part and just controlled the game, especially on the defensive game. And then we beat Rutgers, that wasn’t a big deal. But the Michigan State game — I feel like that was the defining game of the season more so than that Wisconsin game.
JY: Switching over to the lows — there was the losing streak and you guys were banged up, but then there were the Iowa and Northwestern games heading into this week. Obviously still a lot to be determined in regards to who’s healthy and who’s not going to play in the Redbox Bowl. Does the offense feel like it has the confidence that it can bounce back from that last couple of games?
TP: Lovie’s favorite thing is to not tell us who’s injured. Just won’t say it. So we have no idea, and because it’s been like a month, we don’t know. It’s great that Peters is back. It’s great that Peters is playing because he was often somebody who was like, “Is he touching the field?” Honestly, our playmakers are healthy. They’re here and this month recovery’s been great. The only thing about the two-game loss in the end (is that) the bye week was a loss of momentum and that’s something that does happen. When they had a great winning streak … I don’t know what it was, but that momentum (was) lost. Hopefully they can come back.
JY: What does Illinois need to do to win this game?
TP: We have got to take the ball away. … We are good at it when we do it, and we are consistent at it when we do it. Our offense is good once they have the ball but (for) our defense, stopping the run is hard but they can take the ball, which is, you know, harder. It’s much harder to take the ball away but that’s what we’re good at. But we can’t stop the run and that’s a huge, huge, huge thing. And, you know, if Cal has noticed that we can’t stop the run, then you just put all your strongest runners in (and) you push them through the line.
JF: And … (receiver) Imatorbhebhe or no Imatorbhebhe, there needs to be some semblance of a passing game. Of course, because this is a team that loves to run the ball as much as they do … it doesn’t necessarily translate when you just have the running game. You can only put Reggie Corbin through so much, you can only put Dre Brown through so much before eventually teams are gonna start adjusting. So having some kind of passing game — I’m not entirely sure, again question mark on Imatorbhebhe playing — he’ll probably be the biggest factor in what they do with their passing game.