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Illinois needs to get the ball to its playmakers vs. Iowa

The Illini are struggling to score; Mike Dudek, Ricky Smalling are guys that need to get the ball in their hands.

Illinois v Northwestern Photo by David Banks/Getty Images

Illinois travels to Iowa City this Saturday to take on the Hawkeyes at Kinnick Stadium. The Illini haven’t won on the road at Iowa since 1999. Here are some of the key matchups we are watching out for this week.

Illinois’ bad pass defense vs mistake-free Iowa QB

The Illinois Fighting Illini were unable to stop the pass against Nebraska last week, and that game was against pick-six machine quarterback Tanner Lee. Currently the Illini rank 99 out of 129 teams in team passing efficiency defense. Blame it on youth. Blame it on a lack of discipline with how many players have been ejected because of targeting calls. A lot comes into play as to why and how this defense hasn’t been able to stop the pass.

This defense will have its hands full when they go up against Iowa Hawkeyes signal caller Nathan Stanley. Stanley is efficient, smart and rarely makes an errant throw. Stanley is completing 61 percent of his passes with a touchdown to interception ratio of 12:1. Iowa has always been a run-first team. It’s part of their identity. Couple that with a quarterback who makes things happen without losing his poise — Iowa poses a serious challenge for the Illini.

Illinois’ explosive plays vs Iowa’s clock-control offense

Illinois offensive coordinator Garrick McGee spoke to the media on Monday saying how he wants to utilize Illinois’ play-makers more, and how that played a role in the decision to change starting quarterbacks. Watch the clip here:

Mike Dudek and Ricky Smalling are guys that need to be factors in this Iowa game in order for the Illini to have any chance. Iowa plays typical Big Ten, smash-mouth football. They don’t trick opponents. They don’t deviate from their bread-and-butter, which is to run the football down opponents throats and control the clock. If Iowa is going to dictate tempo much like they did when they demolished Illinois last season, it’s critical the Illini get some big yardage, explosive plays from their speedsters.

Illinois offensive line vs Iowa defensive line (and ‘Crootin)

Most of Illinois’ struggles all come back to one unit: The offensive line. This a young group, a constantly-shuffling group that has yet to really put together a dominant performance. It’s only going to get harder when the Illini go up against guys like Parker Hesse, Anthony Nelson, Nathan Bazata and A.J. Epenesa along Iowa’s defensive front.

Defensive end A.J. Epenesa was the top high school player in the state of Illinois last season coming out of Edwardsville. To be fair, Epenesa was a legacy at Iowa — his father Eppy Epenesa played at Iowa in the 1990’s. The younger Epenesa is already making an immediate impact for the Iowa Hawkeyes. It’s easy to get carried away with the all of the pressure the Illinois staff must feel heading into this game. Iowa is another program fighting tooth and nail for Chicagoland area’s top recruits. Iowa recruits the state of Illinois as much as the Fighting Illini do, and it’s important for Lovie Smith and his staff to show some improvement on the field in order to impress recruits who may be at this game and/or are watching at home.