I was encouraged by the outcome yesterday. Yes, it was a loss, but this was a competitive game on the road. Illinois has two weeks to fix up the mistakes they made against Iowa, and prepare for Wisconsin. If Ferguson is healthy for that game, I feel good about the Illini's chances. Here are the best players from yesterday's game:
1. The Defensive Line
The defensive line had one of the best games an Illini defensive line has had in a long time. Illinois was getting pressure on a very good Iowa offensive line for nearly the entire game. Jihad Ward had his best game of the year, delivering hard hits, and just being an overall force in the Iowa backfield. He finished with 11 tackles, an extremely good number for any player, especially a defensive lineman. On the other side, Dawuane Smoot continued his monster season with 3 TFLs including a sack yesterday. Iowa had absolutely no answer for Smoot. Probably my favorite play of the game was when the Hawkeyes held Smoot and he still got a sack on quarterback CJ Beathard. Jarrod "Chunky" Clements also continued his solid season with 6 tackles and 2 TFLs including a Jadeveon Clowney-like TFL of Jordan Canzeri. This entire unit was very good yesterday against one of the better lines in the B1G. If the Illini can get that same production for the rest of the season, this defensive line will win them some games. I'm already excited to see what they do to the Penn State offensive line, which has been one of the worst in the country so far.
2. Geronimo Allison
Gmo has been having an awesome season, but this is his first time on the players of the game list. Allison stepped up big yesterday when the Illini truly needed him. Without Josh Ferguson, combined with Ke'Shawn Vaughn and Marchie Murdock being banged up, Illinois leaned on Allison as one of their only healthy playmakers. He came up with a huge touchdown catch that closed the Iowa lead to just 3 in the fourth quarter. Desmond King, probably the best cornerback in the B1G, was covering Geronimo all day and he still finished with 8 catches for 148 yards. Geronimo Allison is now the B1G leader in receptions, receiving yards, receptions per game, and receiving yards per game. He is making a strong case for 1st team All-B1G and to be strongly considered for the Biletnikoff award.
3. Wes Lunt
The man that set up Geronimo Allison for all those catches? Wes Lunt. Lunt played great in the second half. If we can consistently see that performance from him, this offense will be able to put up points for the defense. Lunt started 4 for 13 before completing his next 11 passes. He was 19-27 for 228 yards in the second half, which gave Illinois a real chance to win. He thrived under the up tempo offense that Coach Bill Cubit switched to for the second half. Lunt continues to show NFL quality throws: the throw to Malik Turner, that he caught with one hand, and the quick slant to Allison on Illinois' 1 yard line were both spectacular.
Lunt has managed to stay healthy behind a surprisingly good offensive line. The receivers, who played better yesterday, and Lunt seem to be getting more on the same page, and they will two weeks to practice. This passing game is improving, and it will be a game-changer for Illinois, if Lunt can stay hot.