Did everyone have a nice bye week? I hope you enjoyed it because there won't be another one until sometime next Fall. After a 55-14 #BeatDown courtesy of Ohio State, the Illinois Fighting Illini are preparing to take on the Iowa Hawkeyes for the first time since 2008 (!!). Let's give a warm welcome to Black Heart Gold Pants's Ross as he joins us to answer our questions.
1. The Hawkeyes are coming off a surprising 51-14 loss to Minnesota, but they're currently 6-3 (3-2) on the year. In your opinion, how has Iowa performed this season? Are they meeting expectations?
Short answer: no. Long answer:it's incredibly difficult to know what to make of this team. At 6-3 overall, 3-2 in the Big Ten, Iowa's not too far off most reasonable projections for Iowa's record at this point in the season. But they've hardly looked impressive in compiling that record, even in their wins, and they've looked absolutely dreadful for stretches (or the entire game, in the case of the Minnesota game) in their losses. Iowa's been wildly inconsistent all season, with flashes of really strong play surrounded by long stretches of stuttering, stumbling play. Who's the real Iowa? We're nine games into the season and I'm still not sure.
2. Illinois fans probably aren't too familiar with the Iowa roster because the two teams haven't squared off since 2008. Who are Iowa's weapons on offense?
The roster's different, but the general approach from Iowa is pretty similar to what you may have remember from six years ago. Well, sort of. Iowa added Greg Davis as offensive coordinator three years ago and it's been a struggle to incorporate his horizontal passing game and its emphasis on short routes and quick passes with the zone-blocking run game that's been Iowa's bread and butter since Ferentz arrived at Iowa. When the offense has looked its best over the past few years, it's generally been because it's looked a bit more like the old Iowa offense with an emphasis on play-action and downfield passes.
As far as the key personnel on Iowa's offense... the triggerman is quarterback Jake Rudock, a second-year starter who's generally accurate (63% pass completion), but also has a not-entirely-undeserved reputation for checking down a bit too much (6.7 ypa) and eschewing riskier big plays for safer, more conservative plays. Like so many things Iowa this year, he's been inconsistent; when he's good, he's been very productive, but when he's bad, he's been a key part of the Iowa offense bogging down.
Rudock's favorite target is wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley (37 receptions, 342 yards, 1 TD), a solid possession receiver-type with good hands and strong route running skills. Damond Powell is Iowa's biggest deep threat (14 receptions, 280 yards, 2 TD) and is capable of stretching defenses. Iowa's best overall receiver is probably Tevaun Smith (30 receptions, 364 yards, 2 TD), who has a strong mix of good hands, solid route running skills, and good speed.
Iowa still likes to run the ball a lot and Mark Weisman, an Air Force transfer and former fullback, is the lead back. He's certainly not the speediest running back around and he won't make many opponents miss, but he's a good fit in Iowa's zone-blocking, he doesn't go down easy, and he's a punishing runner. He also has quite a nose for the end zone (30 rushing touchdowns in almost three seasons of work) when Iowa's in the red zone. Aside from Weisman, Iowa also has Jordan Canzeri (54 carries, 219 yards) and Akrum Wadley (24 carries, 174 yards), who add a bit more speed and shiftiness to Weisman's brawn.
3. Do the Hawkeyes have any players on the defensive side that Illini fans should worry about?
In general, the key defensive playmakers for Iowa are along the line. Defensive tackles Louis Trinca-Pasat and Carl Davis have been rocks in the middle of Iowa's defense, with Davis generally occupying opposing blockers and freeing up Trinca-Pasat to make plays in the backfield, which he's done quite well (9.5 TFL, 5.5 sacks). Defensive end Drew Ott has been one of the best non-Joey Bosa defensive linemen in the league this year: 44 tackles, 10.5 TFL, 7.5 sacks. He's been a force all season and he's definitely a guy that Illinois fans should be worried about -- if Illinois doesn't do a good job of blocking him, it could be a very long day for Mr. Lunt in his return.
4. The return of Wes Lunt is finally upon us. What can we expect from the Iowa secondary and defensive line on Saturday?
It depends a lot on which Iowa defense shows up. Prior to last week's utter meltdown in all phases, Iowa's defense -- and particularly the pass defense -- had been looking quite strong. Even now, Iowa's pass defense ranks 8th in yards per game (180.1 ypg) and 20th in passer rating (109.40) and opposing quarterbacks have been completing just 51% of their passes against Iowa. So if the standard Iowa pass defense shows up on Saturday, Iowa should be able to force Lunt and the Illinois passing game into an inefficient, largely ineffective day. I covered the defensive line in the previous answer, so I'll hit on the secondary here. The leader of the secondary is sophomore cornerback Desmond King, who's been very good for Iowa since assuming a starting role early last season. His stats won't wow anyone (just one interception), but he's strong in coverage and a reliable tackler (especially in run support). He had a poor game against Minnesota (like, well, everyone), but in general he's been a rock in the secondary. Iowa's other corner, Greg Mabin, has been going through a few growing pains this season (he arrived at Iowa as a wide receiver) but he has tremendous athleticism and has improved over the course of the year. Jordan Lomax and Johnny Lowdermilk, Iowa's starting safeties, have been hit-or-miss in their coverage responsibilities and have helped give up some big passing plays. The Iowa secondary is solid, but generally it's a case of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. They're also much better when the defensive line is able to wreak havoc and generate pressure on quarterbacks.
5. What's your opinion of Illinois heading into this game? Which players on our side do you view as the biggest threat?
With Lunt, I think Illinois is a team with a potent offense and a pretty shaky defense; that's certainly what the stats suggest. That said, Illinois' win over Minnesota certainly caught my attention, as the Gophers are a solid team this year. Illinois rode some good fortune in that game -- they were able to turn every good offensive drive into a touchdown and they were very opportunistic in returning a late fumble for the game-winning touchdown -- but hey, that's what you have to do.
Lunt looks like Illinois' biggest threat by far. He was averaging 313.8 passing yards per game before he got hurt, which was easily tops in the Big Ten. Even after missing a month's worth of games, Lunt still ranks 8th in the Big Ten in passing (despite playing three more games, Rudock has just 80 more passing yards than Lunt). He's an explosive, accurate passer and I'm definitely nervous about him picking the Iowa defense apart if he has enough time. Aside from Lunt, I'm also worried about his two main targets, Mike Dudek and Geronimo Allison. Between them they've got 1200 yards and 8 receiving touchdowns, so keeping them quiet will be a tall order for Iowa's pass defense.
6. What's your prediction for Saturday's matchup?
Iowa's not as bad as they were last weekend against Minnesota -- but they're also not as good as they looked two weeks ago against Northwestern. How good are they really? They're somewhere in-between those two extremes. If last week's loss doesn't light a fire under this Iowa team and get them to play with a chip on their shoulders, I don't know what will. They were utterly embarrassed in every phase of the game against Minnesota, so they should have plenty of motivation to come out and play well against Iowa. On defense, I think Iowa will be successful if the defensive line is able to generate pressure and force Wes Lunt into some mistakes. On offense, I think Iowa will put a big emphasis on establishing the run and grinding away with Weisman, Wadley, and Canzeri and I think they'll be pretty successful. I expect Lunt to make some big plays in the passing game for Illinois and keep things within a score for most of the game, but Iowa's running game will finally wear down Illinois' defense in the fourth quarter on the way to a 31-17 Iowa win.
Thanks again to Ross for taking the time to answer our questions! Make sure to check out Black Heart Gold Pants for more coverage as we approach Saturday's game.