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Behind enemy lines: Q&A with The Champaign Room ahead of Maryland-Illinois

Get to know the Illini a little better before they play the Terps for the first time.

NCAA Football: Western Illinois at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Maryland and Illinois will meet in football for the first time in history on Saturday in College Park. The Terps (4-3, 2-2 Big Ten) will be looking to move within one win of bowl eligibility, while the Illini (3-4, 1-3) are trying to even up their record after two straight losses.

To learn a little more about this brand-new opponent, we brought in Austin Jabs from our SB Nation friends at The Champaign Room. You can follow along with @Champaign_Room on Twitter for an Illinois perspective all week. Our corresponding Q&A is available here.

Testudo Times: Illinois is 3-4 with one Big Ten victory. How has this season compared with what fans expected?

The Champaign Room: There are really two answers here. I think the season record wise is on track with how most of us expected things to shake out. 2-1 in non conference and one Big Ten win with the potential for another one or two. That being said, the way this team has played, particularly on the defensive side of the ball has left much to be desired. The Illini have struggled in almost every game against both the pass and the run. Against USF, Penn State, and Wisconsin Illinois was either leading or within striking distance in the third quarter and went on to lose those three games by a combined margin of 74 points. Illinois clearly has not been able to put forth a succinct defense for four quarters and have fallen apart late in these games. Fans are rightfully growing uneasy at the regression seen, but the offensive improvement has given some hope for the future under OC Rod Smith.

TT: Two different Illini quarterbacks have started games this year, and it seems like both are still rotating back and forth. What does each signal caller bring, and is there one we should expect to see more of on Saturday?

TCR: AJ Bush is far and away a stronger runner than MJ Rivers, but Rivers has shown a much greater aptitude for the passing game than his counterpart. When it comes to Bush, a running quarterback can be a huge asset if they are able to make throws when needed to keep the defense honest. We saw against Wisconsin that was their entire gameplan on defense. Stack the box almost every play and force Bush to make throws. Turns out, he was not able to. Bush’s biggest knock is that when there is the first sign of pressure, he tends to revert to his instincts of running the ball and reads the defense very poorly. Rivers, in my opinion, gives Illinois the best chance to win game for the rest of the season due to his ability to play the pass much better. If Rivers can make throws that will keep the defense honest and allow Corbin and Epstein to run the ball at a much higher clip than they have been able to in their last two games. As Lovie Smith has not yet named a starter yet, I fully expect that to be a sign that Rivers will indeed start Saturday.

TT: Reggie Corbin is averaging nearly 8 yards per carry and has six touchdowns in seven games. What makes him such a weapon at running back?

TCR: Can an offensive coordinator be a weapon? Former OC Garrick McGee was so poor at his job that Corbin was never properly utilized. Now, under Smith, Corbin is showing the talent many believed he had over the previous seasons. Corbin has great field vision and will wait for holes to materialize as opposed to simply running into a pile hoping for the best. Additionally, Corbin has great speed, making the option play a great weapon for his skillset, allowing the outside runs to go for positive yardage more often than not. The Illinois offensive line has been serviceable for the run game, much more so than for the pass game, helping to create space and gaps.

TT: Which defensive player (or players) should Terps fans be watching out for?

TCR: Defensive lineman Bobby Roundtree has the potential to be one of the best in the Big Ten in his junior and senior seasons. Right now, as a sophomore, Roundtree has four sacks and five pass breakups. His biggest game game against Penn State, where he amassed ten solo tackles and two sacks. His size, 6’5” and 255 pounds, makes his a tough matchup for opposing lines. He is able to get through the line and put pressure on the quarterback and should be able to get to Kasim Hill throughout the game. This game will come down to line play for each team and Roundtree could be that X factor for Illinois Saturday.

TT: What would a win Saturday mean for Illinois going forward?

TCR: I think a win would reignite bowl game discussions for the fan base. Four wins with four games to go would give hope to long suffering fans that the six win plateau is attainable. That would also ensure Lovie Smith would have another season in Champaign, although I think that even if the Illini lose out Lovie Smith will return. These fans have been patient throughout this rebuild, but seeing success of first and second year coaches in the Big Ten has created some angst throughout the fan base, rightfully so. A win tempers that and gives Illinois something to build off of.

TT: Complete this sentence: ________ will win because ________.

TCR: I have been back and forth on this all week long. These two teams match up really well in the passing game, or lack thereof. The glaring difference is the defense. Maryland has allowed an average of 315 yards per game, compared to Illinois’ 510 yards per game. So to answer your question, Maryland will win because their defense is far and away better than that of Illinois.