Cal Football: First Look at Bears' Redbox Bowl Foe, Illinois; Cal Favored by 6 Points

Coach Lovie Smith has Illinois in a bowl game for the first time since 2014.Photo by Mike Carter - USA TODAY Sports

Jeff Faraudo

Here is the early report on what you need to know about Illinois, which will be paired against Cal at the Dec. 30 Redbox Bowl:

KICKOFF: 1 p.m. Monday, Dec. 30 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, CA

TV: Fox

ILLINOIS 2019 RECORD: The Fighting Illini is 6-6 overall, 4-5 in the Big Ten. They finished fourth in the Big Ten West.

POINT SPREAD: Cal favored by 6 points. Over/Under -- 43. (This is according to lines posted by Vegas Insider.)  Spread opened at 4 points and it has increased since the announcement of the matchup. There must be a lot of money being bet on Cal.

(Click here to see what Cal LB Evan Weaver, the nation's leading tackler, says in a video about playing against an Illinois linebacker who is the nation's No. 2 tackler.)

THE SERIES: Illinois leads 7-3, but Cal has won the past two meetings, in 2003 and 2005. Prior to that, the Fighting Illini won seven of eight. Nine of the 10 games were played in September with one in October. The teams have never met in a bowl game.

BOWL HISTORY: Illinois is 8-10 all-time in bowl games. The program’s most recent bowl game was a 35-18 loss to Louisiana Tech at the 2014 Heart of Dallas Bowl. Illinois has played in the Rose Bowl five times, including three visits (1964, 1984 and 2008) since Cal's most recent trip to Pasadena on New Year’s Day.

In the video below, Cal cornerback Cam Bynum talks about Illinois:

LAST GAME: Illinois lost 19-10 at home to a Northwestern team that entered the game winless in the Big Ten and with an overall record of 2-9. The Illini, having already clinched bowl eligibility, had no tangible motivation other than to win an in-state rivalry, played without starting quarterback Brandon Peters, sideline by a concussion. Redshirt freshman Matt Robinson was just 8-for-17 passing for 108 yards.

ILLINOIS COACH: Lovie Smith is in his fourth season as head coach and has Illinois in its first bowl game since 2014. Smith, 61, has a record of 15-33 at Illinois. He spent much of his career coaching in the NFL, where he was 81-63 with the Chicago Bears from 2004-12, including a trip to the Super Bowl after going 13-3 in the 2006 regular season. Smith then coached the 2014 and ’15 seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, compiling an 8-24 record.

ILLINOIS STORYLINES: Illinois has had some highs and lows this season, topped by a 24-23 win over No. 6 Wisconsin at home on Oct. 19. The Illini also beat Michigan State 37-34 on Nov. 19 to clinch bowl eligibility. But all that came after the team started 2-0 then lost four in a row, including to Nebraska, Minnesota and Michigan. The Illini turned their season around with the win over Wisconsin, then ran off victories over Purdue and Rutgers and at Michigan State to reach six victories.

Illinois was led by grad transfer quarterback Brandon Peters, formerly of Michigan, who passed for 1,611 yards with 17 touchdowns and seven interceptions. A 6-foot-5, 220-pounder, Peters passed for 369 yards and three touchdowns in the Illini’s 37-34 win over Michigan State on Nov. 19 that clinched bowl eligibility. He also had four touchdown passes against UConn. But Peters also suffered concussions against  Minnesota on Oct. 5 and No. 17 Iowa on Nov. 23 - both Illinois defeats.

Senior Reggie Corbin, a 5-10, 200-pounder, is the team’s top rusher with 634 yards and six tourhdowns. He was named third-team All-Big Ten. A year ago Corbin rushed for 1,261 yards, including 213 yards on 13 carries (16.4 per attempt) with two touchdowns against Minnesota. He has 2,663 career rushing yards. Dre Brown, a 5-11, 210-pound senior, added 545 rushing yards with five TDs.

The Illini’s top receiver is 6-2, 215-pound junior Josh Imatorbhebhe, a transfer from USC, who has 33 receptions for 634 yards, an average of 19.2 yards, with nine TDs, two of them in the bowl-clinching win over Michigan State. Imatorbhebhe was an honorable mention All-Big Ten pick.

Linebacker Dele Harding (9) has the second-most tackles in the nation, behind Cal's Evan Weaver.
Linebacker Dele Harding (9) has the nation's second-most tackles, behind only Cal's Evan Weaver.Photo by Brian Spurlock, USA Today

ILLINOIS’ BEST PLAYER: Linebacker Dele Harding is the Illini’s answer to Cal’s Evan Weaver. While Weaver leads the nation in tackles with 173, Harding is second with 148. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound senior was voted first-team All-Big Ten by the media, third team by the coaches. He forced three fumbles and intercepted three passes, returning two of them for touchdowns.

CAL-ILLINOIS CONNECTION: Mike White is the link between these programs. Berkeley-born, White coached the defensive line at Cal from 1958 through ’63, part of the staff that got the Bears to the 1959 Rose Bowl. After an eight-year stint as offensive line coach and offensive coordinator at Stanford, White was hired by Cal as head coach in 1972. He ran the program for six seasons (35-30-1), and twice was named National Coach of the Year, including in 1975, when a team with Joe Roth, Chuck Muncie and Wesley Walker won a Pac-8 co-championship. After two seasons as line coach for the 49ers, White coached the Illini for eight seasons (47-41-3), leading them to the 1984 Rose Bowl.

HOMETOWN BOY: Outside linebacker Milo Eifler (MEE-low EYE-fler), a junior from Berkeley, transferred to Illinois from Washington and enjoyed a productive season. The 6-foot-2, 225-pound graduate of Bishop O’Dowd High had 59 tackles, including nine tackles for loss. His best performance was against Rutgers, where he had 10 tackles and a sack. According to the Illinois website, former Cal star linebacker Hardy Nickerson convinced Eifler to begin playing football as a high school sophomore.

TICKETS: For information on tickets to the Redbox, click here.

Comments (1)
No. 1-1

Hardy Nickerson coached at Bishop O'Dowd. He was hired at Illinois, and his son Hardy Jr. (a good linebacker in his own right) transferred from Cal to Illinois. Which was a bummer for this Cal fan.