CHAMPAIGN — Clearly, Illinois safety Stanley Green has a nose for the ball. It showed against Michigan.
The senior from East St. Louis forced a fumble in the second quarter of Saturday’s 42-25 loss to No. 16 Michigan.
It was the eighth forced fumble of his career, tying him with Dana Howard for third on the Illini chart. Only Simeon Rice (13) and Whitney Mercilus (11) have more.
“I’ve been doing it my whole life,” Green said. “I just go in there. It’s never planned. It just happens.”
He was thrilled to tie Howard, a fellow East St. Louis product.
“I’ve got to call him (Saturday) and let him know,” Green said. “I’m in great company. I’m coming for Simeon next.”
Illinois coach Lovie Smith wasn’t surprised by Green’s performance.
“It is his deal, especially when he lowers the target,” Smith said. “Stanley Green is an aggressive football player, a tough football player. He loves the contact part of football. You needed that on a day like (Saturday).”
Green saw the Illini get better later in the game.
“This defense showed a lot of fight (Saturday),” he said. “We made some mistakes in the beginning. I made some mistakes.”
Green wasn’t about to give up. Even after the Wolverines took a 28-0 lead.
“We’ve got a lot of pride,” he said. “Nobody wants to get kicked around out there.”
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True freshman Isaiah Williams saw the most action of his rookie season. The former St. Louis Trinity star subbed for Matt Robinson early in the game and attempted the first pass of his college career. But he ultimately finished 0 of 4 passing and had four carries for 4 yards before leaving with an undisclosed injury, Smith said.
“We wanted to get him involved,” Smith said. “Get him some valuable reps. We were able to get him a few. He’s a young football player that’s going to play better next week.”
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Sophomore running back Chase Brown made his Illinois debut Saturday. The Western Michigan transfer was declared eligible this week.
“Better later than never,” Smith said. “We’ve had a chance to see who he is. He’s been going against the No. 1 defense on the look squad all of the year.”
Brown played on special teams against the Wolverines.
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Entering Saturday, Illinois averaged the most penalty yards of any Big Ten team.
The trend continued against Michigan, with the Illini getting flagged 10 times for 95 yards.
“We’ve been pretty good with penalties,” Smith said. “Guys trying to block, sometimes you grab a little bit more than you need to. That hasn’t been something we’ve had to deal with an awful lot. I’m gong to say it’s a one-time thing, and we’ll get it cleaned up next week.”
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Senior tailback Dre Brown led the Illini with 39 yards on eight carries and scored a touchdown. He was happy with the way the team rallied.
“I haven’t seen that in my career,” Brown said. “I’m proud of the guys for fighting. But we know we need to finish.”
The team gained confidence.
“Michigan is a Top 25 team, so we can play against anybody,” Brown said. “That’s one takeaway that we’re good enough. We knew that. But it’s nice to prove it on the field.”
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Valparaiso transfer Donny Navarro continues to get involved in the offense. The sophomore had three catches for 18 yards on Saturday.
“It’s a lot of fun just being out there and taking every opportunity I can,” Navarro said. “I want to win for sure.”
Robinson was thrilled for his roommate.
“He catches everything,” Robinson said, “and he works extremely hard.”
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When Smith first got hired at Illinois, Greg McElroy’s reaction was “home run.”
“Just because of what recruits prioritize now,” McElroy said. “It’s all about getting into the NFL. With his pedigree and the amount of connections he has in the league, I thought that would really resonate with recruits.”
McElroy, the former Alabama and NFL quarterback, worked as ABC’s analyst on Saturday’s game. It was his first visit to Memorial Stadium.
Winning at Illinois isn’t easy, McElroy said.
“It’s a tough place to win consistently and it’s a tough place to recruit because there is not a lot of ridiculous talent in the state,” he said.
Changing the head coach isn’t the right way to go for Illinois football, McElroy said.
“I don’t think you can get a fair evaluation on the guy, especially considering what he walked into,” he said. “I think it takes five years. At least. That’s always been my thought process.
“Frankly, I don’t think Lovie should be in any jeopardy whatsoever.”
McElroy has a question of his own.
“Lovie Smith is a very-respected coach in all levels of football,” he said. “Who else can you get that’s going to have that same resonance? His name gets people’s attention. The benefits of having him as your head coach are enormous in terms of brand notoriety.”
McElroy said coaches who make the transition from the NFL to college, like Smith, don’t realize how hard it is to develop players.
“In the NFL, they arrive as a finished product,” McElroy said. “It’s easier to draft guys where you can kind of project where they’re going to be than sometimes, like it is at Illinois, where you don’t get the pick of the litter in recruiting. You have to identify some of the diamonds in the rough, the guys who might have three stars to their name that could in three or four years become five stars with how they produce.”
What should be the high-end goal for Illinois football?
“The goal always every year is to be a team that is going to be in contention to go to a bowl game,” McElroy said. “Then every four years or so, you cycle up with a veteran group of players that have played a lot of football together and you reel off an eight- or a nine-win season. The recipe for Illinois would be to take the model Kentucky has used. You’re going to have a couple seasons here or there where you go 4-8. But you’re also going to have a couple seasons where you might be in the mix to win 10 like Kentucky did last year in a tough league.
“Illinois should be able to compete against the likes of Northwestern and Rutgers and Maryland.”