In third year with Smith at helm, Illinois still not getting much Lovie from Big Ten

The defense is among the most opportunistic in college football.

The offense features a running back who leads the Big Ten in yards per carry.

The Australian-born punter is among Big Ten leaders in yards per boot.

While many of Illinois’ accomplishments mirror those of Maryland this season as it comes to College Park on Saturday for the first-ever meeting between the schools, the Fighting Illini are struggling even more than the Terps.

Maybe a lot more.

Despite some improvement individually, it has been largely a continuation of the first two seasons under Lovie Smith. The Fighting Illini were a combined 5-19 and in 2017 lost their last 10 games after a 2-0 start.

“Year 3 will produce results,” Smith told reporters at the Big Ten Media Days in Chicago this past summer. “I don’t think [I] should say, ‘I think this is how many wins we’re going to get.’ I just know behind the scenes they’ve gotten much better.

“You look at what happened during the course of [last] year. There were about three games we didn’t have a chance to win, [but] the rest of the time we played competitive ball. … I just know that we’re a better team.”

Since starting the season with wins over Kent State and Western Illinois, Illinois has lost four of five games, with its only victory in that stretch coming at Rutgers. In recent losses to Purdue and Wisconsin, the Fighting Illini (3-4, 1-3 Big Ten) were outscored, 95-27.

Though Smith’s optimism hasn’t translated into victories, there is reason for hope. After Maryland, which is favored by 18 points, Illinois will face two other struggling teams, Minnesota and Nebraska, the following two weeks.

Much of the problems for the Fighting Illini start at quarterback. After rushing for 139 yards in the season opener, graduate transfer AJ Bush was injured in the first half of the win over Western Illinois and missed two games.

After rushing for 116 yards and two touchdowns, as well as throwing for a touchdown, in the rout of Rutgers, Bush struggled the past two games. The Virginia Tech transfer completed just two of eight passes for 10 yards and two interceptions while rushing for 47 yards in last week’s 49-20 loss at then-No. 23 Wisconsin.

Smith is looking forward to putting the past two games in the past.

“After two disappointing weekends, we’re excited to get back on the practice field — we need to play a game,” Smith said on Tuesday’s Big Ten coaches’ teleconference. “We’re playing a good Maryland football team.

“We don’t have a history with Maryland right now. I like our guys to go to traditional stadiums. We’re really looking forward to the game this week. We need to play better football. When you lose the turnover ratio, it’s tough to win, especially against good football teams.”

Smith knows what’s in store at Maryland Stadium, having watched tape of the Terps dismantling Minnesota and Rutgers while being taken apart by Michigan and Iowa.

“We look at all games. Some games you don’t play your best ball,” Smith said. “As they look at us, we look better certain weeks. The last couple of weeks they played some good defenses. They haven’t played their best ball a couple of those games.

“As you keep watching enough, you’ll see what they’re capable of doing. Offensively, you look at the Minnesota game — they played pretty good football there. A lot of skill on that side of the ball and … we’ll have to play the best ball we have in a while to keep up with them.”

don.markus@baltsun.com

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