THE WHEN AND WHERE
Game: Iowa Hawkeyes (-3.5) vs. Illinois Fighting Illini
Time: 11:00 AM Central Time - Saturday, November 15th
Place: Memorial Stadium - Champaign, Illinois
I guess the Illini are wearing a red/white/blue helmet decal this weekend, which is cool though somewhat strangely timed. I suppose it is the closest game the Illini have to Veterans Day, plus it's gonna look good.
THE GAME POSTER
There's no game poster this week because our artist, Aaron Rench, focused his talents on creating a basketball picture for our hoops season preview article.
THE INJURY REPORT
#28 Jaylen Dunlap - Out
#34 Mike Svetina - Out
#64 Steve Dumezich - Out
#68 Simon Cvijanovic - Out
#6 Carroll Phillips - Out for Season
#35 Sean White - Out for Season
#58 Kenny Nelson - Out for Season
#66 Scott McDowell - Out for Season
#69 Ted Karras - Out for Season
#93 Teko Powell - Out for Season
W E S - L U N T - B A C K
In horrifying news, top lineman Ted Karras is officially out for the season with his knee injury. LT Simon Cvijanovic, who was expected to play against Iowa, will sit out another week from the injury he sustained against OSU. Yikes.
The Iowa offense is your stereotypical #B1G unit taken to the extreme. Greg Davis intends to call a run on first down that eclipses three yards, a run on second down that goes for no gain, and then a pass on third down without a single route ending beyond the sticks. Based on the aptitude of the defense, this will end in somewhere between 7-31 points and the unfortunate death of 7-31 offensively inclined viewers.
The Hawkeye running backs don't have much big play ability. The squad is led by Mark Weisman, a former Air Force fullback who transferred over to Iowa City and earned a starting role last season. Weisman's running style is essentially that of a blindfolded ox running through a military obstacle course (an appropriate analogy, given his past). He is Marshawn Lynch without the Skittles and game-breaking runs-- he was put on this Earth to break arm tackles and that is his highest priority (after he moves three yards down the field). He's slow enough to be caught by a linebacker in the open field but it's not very likely that LB will take him down alone. Weisman is in the second or third tier of Big Ten running backs, but is by no means easy to handle.
The Iowa run game consists of a steady dosage of zone running plays, a staple since Kirk Ferentz began his tenure there. The offensive line is talented, led by future first round pick LT Brandon Scherff. As with any team that has an excellent left tackle, the pass protection for Iowa has been solid this year. It will be difficult for the Illini defensive linemen to push these players like they did in the first half against Minnesota.
The Iowa passing game is led by QB Jake Rudock, who seems like a upper-middle class man's Reilly O'Toole. He has just a bit of scrambling ability but will only use it if an obvious opportunity presents itself. Rudock throws the ball slowly but accurately enough. He lost his job to backup CJ Beathard earlier this season but has since won it back...mostly. The Iowa quarterback situation is not great, but given time in the pocket Rudock will be able to complete intermediate passes against the Illinois defense.
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.
Expect the Illini defense to give up a big play or two on play action passes this Saturday. The defensive game-plan for Iowa should be very similar to Minnesota. If the Illini can't get push from the line like they did a few weeks ago, Iowa could move the ball all day long.
Iowa's defense has been good-but-not-great this year. The passing defense is solid, but it's hard to brag too much about it coming off a performance in which Minnesota put up 52 points and ran for almost 300 yards. Also, Mitch Leidner completed ten passes and 40 percent of them went for touchdowns. Not a great day.
Luckily for Iowa, Illinois' offensive line is completely in shambles. The starting lineup will probably look something like Schmidt-Heitz-Hill-Spencer-DiLauro on Saturday: three of those five did not begin the season with a starting role. DiLauro hasn't looked terrible in his play the last week or two, but I fully expect Schmidt and the interior of the line to struggle.
Iowa's biggest threat on defense is Louis Trinca-Pasat, an excellent defensive tackle who has a strong inclination to blow up plays in the backfield. Trinca-Pasat is second on the team in both tackles for loss and sacks. Both of those categories are led by another lineman, defensive end Drew Ott. These two will be coming for Wes Lunt's bone marrow on Saturday and will likely combine for anywhere between two and 56 sacks.
If Lunt is somehow able to get off a pass, the Iowa secondary has a few vulnerabilities. They rank well in pass defense this season but haven't played a team who can challenge them through the air like Illinois. Here's more on the secondary from BHGP's Ross:
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.
Basically, the success of the offense is going to come down to Illinois' ability to play the Iowa defensive line to a draw. I'm confident in Geronimo Allison and Mike Dudek's abilities to shake opposing cornerbacks (and/or jump over them), but Wes Lunt is going to need time to find them. I expect Illinois to come out and throw quick passes to the outside to neutralize Iowa's strong interior.
Bill Cubit should also think about employing the screen/swing pass packages to an almost-absurd degree. There is a big mismatch on the lines here and the Illini will have more success if they avoid one-on-one match-ups. Illinois could also implement a sixth offensive lineman (a la Eben Britton's role last year with the Chicago Bears) to help the young tackles with the Hawkeyes' formidable linemen. Lastly, expect Cubit to spread four receivers out wide and let Josh Ferguson work the middle of the field. This has been Illinois' most successful offensive formation all year and should be used frequently.
THE NAME OF THE WEEK
I immediately stopped flipping through Iowa's roster when I saw this name: defensive lineman Daumantas Venckus-Cucchiara. It's not every day you see a name consisting of twenty-five letters. That's a lot of letters. After finding that, I set out to find the most Iowa name on the roster. I settled on offensive lineman Ryan Ward, with Kevin Ward coming in a very close second.
THE FIVE KEY POINTS
1. Red zone offense has to improve. This was one key reason that Illinois was able to defeat Minnesota. They converted on their red zone opportunities and had just enough of a lead to hold on (the fumble-six helped). A lack of red zone success was also a major reason that Illinois lost to Purdue-- the Illini only scored on four of their eight trips inside the twenty and lost by two scores. Illinois will have to achieve near perfection in the red zone to take down Iowa.
2. Offensive line. For a group ravaged by injuries, this will be a huge test. They have an injured quarterback that needs as much protection as possible and they're facing a rabid defensive line with playmakers at nearly every position. Tim Beckman will need a huge effort from this group on Saturday.
3. Defensive line. Illinois was able to hold Minnesota's offense to three points in the first half because the defensive line consistently pushed Iowa linemen back a couple of yards, closing running lanes and putting pressure on Mitch Leidner. Like I said earlier, the blueprint for stopping Iowa is almost the exact same as the blueprint for stopping Minnesota. We have seen the Illini accomplish this in the past. Can they do it again?
4. Wes Lunt. All we can hope is that Lunt is healthy and ready to go. His passing prowess is potentially the perfect panacea to the Illini's recent offensive woes. He is the one of the most obvious X-factors in the history of X-factors. He might not even qualify as an X-factor. He's just a factor.
5. Game-planning. With two weeks off to scout Iowa and re-work Wes Lunt into the offense, there is no excuse for the coaching staff to get out-worked this weekend. I won't care if the Illini lose the battle of Jimmys and Joes, so to speak, because that's what I'm expecting. If they lose because the team wasn't prepared properly for a fairly nondescript opponent, that's a major issue and doesn't bode well for the final two games.
Iowa is the most talented team remaining on Illinois' schedule. They have huge, huge advantages on both the offensive and defensive lines. They recently annihilated Northwestern, a team slightly better than Illinois, in every phase of the game. Their physical running back can shrug off tacklers with ease, something the Illini have struggled to deal with this season.
On the other hand, Illinois is coming off a bye week and Iowa is coming off a blowout loss at the hands of a team Illinois beat. Iowa's offense is good at what they do, but they're exceedingly predictable. Greg Davis exists and actually has a job with this team, so Iowa will willingly forfeit at least one or two potential third down conversions. Illinois has more talented skill players than Iowa and the Hawkeyes have yet to face a passing offense with anywhere close to Illinois' firepower.
There are arguments for both sides of this game, but games are too often won in the trenches to pick the Illini. Weisman should run for 100-plus yards and Wes Lunt will probably get sacked into the next millennium. The Illini have a decent chance in this game, but a win would require the coaching staff to absolutely maximize their assets. Iowa is the safe bet here, and probably the correct one.