The Chicago Cubs won their first playoff game since 2003 last night. As a result, I want nothing to do with Illini football at the moment. But the good news is that Ross from Black Heart Gold Pants has stopped by to help preview Illinois' upcoming matchup against the undefeated Iowa Hawkeyes. Let's give him a warm welcome!
1. The No. 22 Hawkeyes (5-0) are off to a scorching start this year and they're finally starting to be mentioned as legitimate contenders in the West Division. What were your expectations heading into the season? Have you already re-adjusted them?
Ross: Yes, definitely. I wasn't entirely sure what to expect from Iowa this year, to be honest. Last year ended in such dismal fashion -- the almost got 'em loss versus Wisconsin, the complete gag job versus Nebraska, and then the complete no-show versus Tennessee in the bowl game. It was hard to feel much optimism for Iowa in 2015, given how bad they'd looked and the fact that there didn't seem to be any saviors riding in on offense or defense. But I also knew they had (and still have) a very favorable schedule, so I thought that unless things completely bottomed out, they had a decent chance to go 7-5 or so and make another middling bowl. Those expectations have definitely been adjusted by Iowa's flying start. Getting through the non-conference portion of the schedule unscathed was reassuring (there were no serious threats on the schedule, but there were plenty of opportunities to stub one's toe) and opening B1G play with a win over Wisconsin (ugly as it was) was impressive. That game figured to be one of the toughest on Iowa's schedule so getting a win there really brightens the outlook for this season. Talk of Rose Bowls or Playoff games or anything like that still seems way too fanciful at the moment -- Iowa didn't look that good versus Wisconsin, especially on offense -- but the ceiling is a lot higher for what this team can accomplish. 9 or 10 wins seems very attainable and with that should come a solid bowl appearance. That would be a nice season, especially after last year's misery and an offseason full of discontent. And if they just want to keep winning this year? Well, I won't complain about that.
2. Iowa's offense isn't exactly the Baylor of the Big Ten, but quarterback C.J. Beathard and running back Jordan Canzeri seem to get the job done when it matters most. Are there any other offensive playmakers for Illini fans to keep an eye on?
Ross: Iowa's most explosive receiver, Tevaun Smith, is expected to miss the game with a knee injury, so that should be a break for the Illinois (maybe it just balances out Josh Ferguson's absence for Illinois). With Smith out, Iowa's top threats at wide receiver figure to be Jerminic Smith (no relation) and Matt VandeBerg. Smith is a true freshman who got his first start a week ago; he and Beathard weren't able to get on the same page then, but hopefully after a week of practice they can make some plays this week. Smith earned a lot of praise during fall practice and he has the physical skills to break some big plays. VandeBerg is a more traditional possession receiver and one of Beathard's favorite safety valves -- he's the guy Iowa most often looks for on third downs as well. The tight ends could also play a bigger role for Iowa in this game -- George Kittle has caught a touchdown pass in two straight games and Henry Krieger Coble has 10 receptions for 105 yards so far this year. Iowa's best tight end a year ago, Jake Duzey, is also expected to play more after recovering from an offseason knee injury. On the ground, it really does figure to be the Canzeri show -- his probably back-ups, LeShun Daniels and Derrick Mitchell, are both dinged up.
3. What about the defense? Who will Iowa rely on to stop Wes Lunt and the Illini?
Ross: The strength of Iowa's defense is up front and in the back end. The defensive line is anchored by seniors Drew Ott and Nate Meier. Ott has been a standout on Iowa's line for the past few years, with disruptive pass-rushing ability as well as the ability to contain the run. He injured his elbow about a month ago against Iowa State, but he seems to be mostly recovered from that -- after a few quiet games, he had a good game against Wisconsin last week. Meier has been overshadowed by Ott at Iowa, but so far this year he's outperforming Ott: Meier leads the team in sacks (5) and tackles for loss (6.5) and has been harassing the passer at a career-best level so far. Iowa's pass defense is giving up a fair amount of yards (215.4 ypg, 64th nationally), but their stats look better when you drill down further: opponents are completing only 54% of their passes against Iowa and Iowa's pass defense checks out pretty well in several advanced stats (for instance, they're 29th in the nation in Defensive Passing Success Rate). The standout performer in the secondary is CB Desmond King: he's tied for the NCAA lead in interceptions (5), also has 4 pass break-ups, and has generally made life miserable for quarterbacks who attempt to test him. If Lunt wants to throw it at him, well, be my guest. I don't think it will end well for the Illini.
4. Who are Iowa's NFL Draft prospects? Will the Illini be going up against any first, second round talent?
Ross: First or second round talent? Likely not -- Iowa tends to produce first or second round talent only when they have a dominant lineman (particularly on offense) and that isn't the case this year. Their best linemen are interior lineman, C Austin Blythe and G Jordan Walsh, and while both guys could hear their names called at the NFL Draft next year, it likely won't be until the later rounds. Drew Ott is Iowa's best defensive lineman and while he's been a very productive player for Iowa, he's not the sort of freakish talent that goes in the early rounds of the draft. Iowa's best pro prospect is likely CB Desmond King, who's tied for the NCAA lead with 5 interceptions and has been providing near-shutdown coverage all year. He's a junior so he may not go in next year's NFL Draft, but he's a sure bet to hear his name called in the Draft when he does opt to go pro. As good as he's been for Iowa, though, I still wouldn't peg him as a first- or second-round pick, mainly because he doesn't seem to have the measurables that NFL types drool over. Overall, this Iowa team is definitely a "whole greater than the sum of its parts" team -- they're playing very well as an entire unit, rather than possessing a great number of standout individual performers.
5. What's your opinion of Illinois heading into the game? Do you envision the Illini giving the Hawkeyes much trouble on either side of the ball?
Ross: Illinois is a hard team to get a read on, frankly. They looked really good in demolishing Kent State and Western Illinois, but then they looked very sketchy in barely beating Middle Tennessee State. And they just looked bad against North Carolina. But last week's win over Nebraska was eye-opening, mainly for their defensive performance -- Nebraska has looked very vulnerable on defense this year, but they've maintained a pretty high-powered offense. And Illinois pretty much shut that down -- Tommy Armstrong went from averaging over 300 passing yards per game to 10/31 for 105 yards and an interception. That's pretty eye-opening, especially against an Iowa offense that struggled to get on track last week. So I'm definitely a bit wary of the Illini defense -- they seem like a pretty solid unit (UNC aside) and one that could pose problems for an Iowa offense that's been OK, but prone to getting bogged down at times. Offensively, it would be a big break for Iowa if Josh Ferguson isn't able to go -- he looks like Illinois' biggest threat on offense and he could have posed some challenges for Iowa's run defense. I also think Wes Lunt is one of the better passers Iowa will face this year, although this numbers are down a bit from a year ago. But overall I'm more worried about the Iowa offense matching up with the Illinois defense than I am the Illinois offense matching up with the Iowa defense.
6. What's your prediction for Saturday's matchup?
Ross: I think Iowa is sluggish in the first half and has a bit of a letdown after last weekend's big win and getting ranked for the first time in five years. I think Illinois' defense will stifle them a bit in the first half as well and force Iowa to settle for field goals. But I think Iowa settles down after halftime and puts together a few longer drives ending in touchdowns. Ultimately, I think Iowa takes the game 27-13.