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Lovie Smith says Illini need to 'put on big boy pads' vs. Badgers
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Lovie Smith says Illini need to 'put on big boy pads' vs. Badgers

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Lovie Smith talks with officials, AP photo

Illinois head coach Lovie Smith speaks with an official during a review in the second half against Wisconsin on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019, in Champaign, Ill. Illinois beat the Badgers 24-23.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Lovie Smith doesn't pull any punches, but sometimes he does keep things close to the vest.

At a Monday online news conference, Smith was quick to answer a question about the quality of play he expects when Illinois begins the delayed season Friday at Wisconsin.

"I don't expect bad football," Smith said, " and we'll get better as the season goes along.

"We're going up (to Madison, Wisconsin) and stay there the night before the game. We've been using the time off to get ready to play Friday night.

Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. at Camp Randall Stadium.

The Big 10 season, originally canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, was reinstated after other conferences, including the Southeastern Conference and Big 12, elected to play.

"I watched football during the time off, " Smith said, "and I don't expect a drop off. Anytime you watch a game, situational football comes up and seeing that helps."

Friday's Illinois game at No 14-ranked Wisconsin will be the first Big 10 game of the weekend — and of the season. Concerns about the COVID-19 virus have been addressed and Smith said the team and the coaching staff are focused on playing the Badgers.

"What we've had to go through has been like withdrawals," Smith said of the layoff before the start of the season. "I can't wait for us to get going. We have a plan for anyone who might be down, whether it's COVID or something else."

The Illini upset Wisconsin last season in Champaign 24-23 on a 39-yard field goal by James McCourt as time expired. The Illini were 30.5-point underdogs.

"We were able to beat them last year and I think we're a better team this year," Smith said Monday, "but so are they."

A factor in playing at Wisconsin has been taken out of play with the ruling that Big 10 games will be played in basically empty stadiums. Smith said he's not sad about that as the team readies to play in Madison.

"Not having to play in front of 80,000 Badger fans means we definitely won't have to worry about crowd noise," Smith said, "but if you rely on someone else to get you going, you won't,

"You can do a lot of talking, but the only way to confirm it is to play against good people."

Wisconsin features plenty of those.

"We have played them enough to know that neither team is likely to do something the other doesn't except," he said. "We have a system we believe in. Wisconsin has a power running game and you have to put on your big boy pads and be ready for that."

Last season, takeaways were a strength for Illinois, continuing a tradition of Smith emphasizing them.

"I'm still preaching it," Smith said. "You can't rely on turnovers, but takeaways are in our DNA."

When pressed on just how many takeaways he'd set as a goal early in the season, Smith said, "A minimum of three takeaways a game and that could go up.

"It's about defense vs. defense and offense outperforming the other offense," he said, " and controlling the things that you can control."


Get ready for Badgers football season with State Journal's complete 2020 preview

Get ready for Badgers football season with State Journal's complete 2020 preview

Prepare for kick off of the University of Wisconsin's 2020 football season on Friday against Illinois with the Wisconsin State Journal's annual Badgers season preview.

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