Following a blowout loss to the Badgers in Madison last Saturday, the Illini will welcome Iowa in to Champaign for Senior Day. Lovie’s team will be honoring several huge pieces that will be graduating including QB Wes Lunt and DE Dawune Smoot. The Hawkeyes are coming off a huge upset of No. 3 Michigan and will obviously carry a lot of momentum into their matchup against the orange and blue. Max Brekke, one of the managing editors for the Iowa SBNation blog Black Heart Gold Pants, was kind enough to answer a few questions about the Hawkeyes.
1. Kirk Ferentz is now extended through 2120 (or at least it seems like it). What were Iowa fans’ reactions to his $4.5 million/year contract extension earlier this season?
Ha! Oh man, he might as well be extended through 2120. A lot of people weren't mad that he got extended because they understood that it helps recruiting to know that a coach will be there as long as the recruits are there, but it was the ridiculous figures in the contract that made people mad. It's seemingly impossible to buy him out of that egregious contract unless the athletic department wants to handicap the program for the foreseeable future, so even if Iowa sucks it up (kinda like they have for most of this season), he's here for the long run. Things seemed to reach a tipping point a few weeks ago when top 2017 commit Eno Benjamin said he was forced by the coaches to de-commit because he visited other schools after accepting his offer, which is against an Iowa football policy.
It's interesting, though - most people don't want a Saban/Harbaugh-like figure who rubs people the wrong way and doesn't "do things the right way," but they're also not happy with the way that Ferentz does things the right way and doesn't win enough. A school like Illinois would probably love to have the kind of stability that Iowa has had, right? Purdue fans were infuriated by the way that Iowa fans complained about Kirk when they had been stuck with Hazell, so I can only imagine how Illinois fans feel after Beckman and Cubit.
2. The Hawkeyes have had an up and down season, losing games early to North Dakota State and Northwestern before knocking off No. 3 Michigan. Describe the fanbase’s expectations for the season back in September and how drastically they have changed following last weekend’s upset.
This season is definitely a disappointment, and before the Michigan game, fans were talking about boycotting the rest of the season in our comments section. I think it can be salvaged with wins against the Illini and Cornhuskers the next two weeks, but without those, it will definitely go down as disappointing. Many had this Iowa team winning 9-10 games this season, which was optimistic, but wasn't unreasonable considering how last year's team performed and the pieces coming back for 2016. After Penn State, fans were legitimately wondering if Iowa would be able to beat Illinois this weekend and 6-6 seemed like the ceiling if they could. It's been a rough year for Iowa, and North Dakota State and Northwestern were definitely teams that the team should've beaten. I think people will definitely be happy going 8-4, but anything less will mean disappointment.
3. On offense, the Hawkeyes aren’t in the top 90 in the nation in rushing or passing yards per game. But this isn’t necessarily an indication of their talent on that side of the ball. Besides C.J. Beathard, who are Iowa’s best playmakers on offense that could give the Illini defense fits?
C.J. Beathard was less than stellar this past weekend, but he hasn't been helped out by a very mediocre receiving corps. He's had to deal with a revolving cast and has had a patchwork offensive line, so I wouldn't say it's all his fault, but during the Michigan game, he missed wide open receivers and it's clear he's a bit snakebitten this season.
The running backs are the big playmakers on offense. Akrum Wadley has been nothing short of spectacular, and he decimated the Wolverines last week. Seriously, he made Jabrill Peppers and Co. look absolutely stupid. If you have about 10 minutes, one of our writers made a video showcasing Wadley, and it makes you wonder what he's going to do against this Illinois defense this weekend. LeShun Daniels is also going to play a big role out of the backfield this weekend, as he splits the carries with Wadley and is the power back. The two have over 1,800 total yards (Wadley has over 1,000) and 17 TD's between them, and they'll look to ruin the Illini defense.
4. Speaking of Beathard, he completed the fewest passes and threw for the fewest yards so far this season against Michigan, yet helped lead the team to an upset victory. What is his biggest strengths and weaknesses from under center?
His biggest strength is that he doesn't make a whole lot of mistakes, specifically in the turnover category. He's thrown six interceptions this season, but he doesn't always have a whole lot of time to get rid of the ball, so his 14:6 TD to INT ratio is pretty acceptable. He has a really strong arm, is normally pretty accurate, and is pretty mobile for a big guy, but it hasn't mattered all too much because of the lack of weapons outside of the running backs. He was projected to be an NFL draft pick this upcoming summer, but after a shaky 2016 campaign, he might wind up being picked late, if at all.
His biggest weakness is probably the players surrounding him. Just this past week, we saw a dropped 2-pt. conversion against Michigan, some poor route running by the receivers, and the offensive line didn't give him much time to go through his progressions against a great Michigan defense. It's been really apparent that at times, he hasn't trusted any of his options and consistently has targeted his check downs quickly, and that this isn't the calm and cool quarterback we saw last season. He has been hurt for the majority of the previous two seasons, and that's slowed him down a bit.
I think Iowa fans still love CJB. Last year was great, and while this year hasn't been as good, I don't think most fans fault him. Rather, they fault the lack of weapons and the poor playcalling by OC Greg Davis as the reason this offense has sputtered. He'll be expected to manage the game and minimize his mistakes, and hopefully he'll make a few big plays.
5. On the other side of the ball, the Hawkeyes rank in the top 20 in the nation in points allowed and turnovers forced. Who are their biggest contributors on the defensive side of things that have created such a suffocating defense?
Well, first and foremost, Iowa has All-American and Thorpe Award winner Desmond King, maybe the greatest defensive back to ever live (or something). For the majority of the season, he's been about as close to unbeatable as you can get and is up for the Thorpe Award again - no other player has ever won the award and returned to college, let alone repeated. Teams often avoid throwing the ball to his side of the field out of fear that he'll burn them.
In the front seven, MLB Josey Jewell is one of the best in the conference and is very fundamentally sound. On a Rutgers' goal line stand earlier this season, he stopped them each and every time for four tackles in four players. When he's on, he's so on. Also in the front seven is DT Jaleel Johnson. Johnson is almost definitely a 3-4th round draft pick, and showcased why against Michigan this past week, recording nine tackles and a safety. He absolutely terrorized the Wolverines while playing every single snap of the game.
6. Interestingly, Iowa is fifth in the nation in 4th down conversion rate and is second in the nation in fourth downs attempted. Is it a surprise to see Ferentz rolling the dice so often on fourth down?
It's not necessarily a surprise, although I think Iowa fans would tell you otherwise. He's rolled the dice a lot and been given the moniker of Kasino Kirk because of it. He didn't trust the kicking game early in the season, electing to go for it when near the goal line and when about 20 yards out. It's been an interesting development, and a pretty successful one for the most part. It's definitely something that's been a positive this season.
7. Champaign is about 4 hours from Iowa City. Will there be a large contingent of Hawkeye faithful that make the trip this weekend? How well do Iowa fans typically travel?
Iowa fans are usually pretty good travelers, which is why they usually get placed in a better bowl than they deserve. There are a lot of Iowa fans in the Chicagoland area (after all, Iowa City is the western-most suburb of Chicago) and I think you can expect to see a pretty good group of fans. Illinois isn't exactly a huge rival of the Hawks, though, so I don't think people will travel as much as they would if Iowa was playing Minnesota or Wisconsin. I'd say that you could probably expect to see a few thousand Iowa fans in attendance.
8. Finally, who wins on Saturday?
I've gotta take Iowa, especially coming off that win against Michigan this past week. I think that Wadley and Daniels are able to torch the Illinois defense, and that Beathard will throw for about 150 and a score. Illinois is able to put some points on the board, but it won't be enough.
Iowa 27, Illinois 10
Thanks again to Max for answering our questions and be sure to head over to Black Heart Gold Pants for some excellent Iowa sports coverage.