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Lovie Smith “excited” about Illinois’ Big Ten opener

Illinois’ head coach previewed the Illini’s conference opener vs. Penn State.

Kent State v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — At his weekly press conference Monday afternoon, Illinois Football head coach Lovie Smith touched on a variety of topics ranging from the status of the Illini’s suspended players, special teams, Friday night games, MJ Rivers and the 27.5-point spread placed on their Big Ten opener.

One word Smith used though about this point in the season: “excited.” Illinois opens Big Ten play Friday night on FS1 vs. No. 10 Penn State.

“In an ideal world, you want to start at home,” Smith said. “We’re excited about the Friday night game, and we’re playing a good team. We understand the challenge.”

Still Suspended?

Smith provided no update to the status of handful of suspended players — Bennett Williams, Nate Hobbs, Lou Dorsey, Carmoni Green and Deon Pate — except to say they’re “day-to-day.”

He confirmed that they have practiced every day during their suspension to open the season, where the Illini went 2-1.

‘Special’ Special Teams

Kicker Chase McLaughlin was not named Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week on Monday, but his 4-for-4 day on field goals in the Illini’s 25-19 loss to South Florida on Saturday was certainly impressive.

Sophomore punter Blake Hayes was solid too in the defeat. Hayes had a career-high four punts of at least 50 yards.

“Our specialists are weapons,” Smith said.

While the Illini certainly won the field position game with punting and put up points with field goals (and kept South Florida’s kick returner, who had two return touchdowns the previous week, with no returns), offensive coordinator Rod Smith would like to see more scores.

“I love Chase McLaughlin,” Smith said, “but I want touchdowns. Not field goals.”

So about those touchdowns...

Illinois scored one touchdown in the loss — Mike Epstein’s 43-yard run in the first quarter. True freshman MJ Rivers started his first career game as graduate transfer QB AJ Bush returns from a Week 2 injury.

Rivers was solid in his first full game, but Illinois still came up short. Lovie Smith still liked what he saw for the most part.

“MJ Rivers had us in position to win another game,” Smith said. “The things he needs to improve are the same as any QB making the first start. “So many learning situations in that game for MJ.”

A sophomore halfback, Epstein was also impressed with Rivers’ first performance.

“MJ was cool, calm and collected,” Epstein said. “Very poised quarterback. He didn’t make a ton of mistakes, and it’s tough as a freshman player.”

One of Illinois’ biggest issues on offense Saturday was the lack of pass blocking, leading to several big sacks on Rivers, including a pair on the Illini’s final drive as the fell short of the late comeback.

“The offensive line did a good job run blocking,” Lovie Smith said, “not as well in the pass game.”

Friday Night Lights

The Illini and Nittany Lions will play on national television on Friday evening — a night typically reserved for high school football.

While other coaches have strong feelings about not playing on Fridays, Smith seems to enjoy the idea.

“For us to have that stage is pretty special.”

Penn State is good.

The Illini opened as 27.5-point underdogs on Sunday, but Smith isn’t too concerned about the large number.

“When you’re that big an underdog, you start talking about their strengths and program, let’s start with the QB,” Smith said. “[Trace McSorley] mobile, accurate, good athlete.”

All of Penn State is really good. That’s why they’re No. 10 in the country. Stay with us for more preview coverage all week long as the Illini go for their first win over the Nittany Lions since 2014.

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