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Illinois vs. Iowa recap: Illini better, but not good enough in 45-16 loss

George Jr. tosses three critical interceptions in first start of season

NCAA Football: Illinois at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

In the first game this season with Jeff George Jr. under center, the Illinois football team showed signs of life on the road against Iowa on Saturday, but couldn’t keep up in the second half of a 45-16 loss.

The turning point of the game came just before halftime in the second quarter. With Illinois (2-3, 0-2 Big Ten) leading 13-10 at that point, Iowa (4-2, 1-2) lined up to punt facing a 4th and 6 from the Illini 41-yard line. Only the Hawkeyes picked up a first down off of a fake punt and Akrum Wadley hauled in a two-yard touchdown catch with eight seconds remaining in the half to give Iowa a 17-13 lead.

From the fake punt on, Iowa outscored Illinois 35-3.

George Jr. finished the game 22 of 45 for 246 yards and made some nice plays, but four turnovers, including a fumble on Illinois’ first offensive play, doomed the Illini from the start.

Wadley had 115 yards on the ground and a touchdown rushing and added another receiving.

Here are a couple things we learned from Saturday’s game:

George Jr. makes Illinois’ offense more potent...and volatile

The sophomore’s arm is significantly better than former starter Chayce Crouch (who saw time at tight end and caught a pass) which adds many new elements to Garrick McGee’s playbook. But until his decision making skills improve, George Jr. will struggle in the Big Ten.

George Jr.’s first interception came when the Illini were in the red zone, and his second was returned 89 yards for a touchdown to end another promising drive.

As for positives, George Jr. spread the ball around to a wide variety of receivers, and he was able to challenge Iowa vertically in ways that Crouch did not. Freshman tight end Louis Dorsey caught passes for 40 and 31 yards each, and Malik Turner and Ricky Smalling each hauled in receptions of over 25 yards.

The Illini were most effective when they weren’t forced to pass however. The team topped 200 rushing yards, led by Mike Epstein’s 83 yards on seven carries before he left the game in the second half with a lower body injury.

George Jr. looked decent running the speed option and read option, which are core tenants of Illinois’ rushing attack.

That being said, it might be Cam Thomas time

George Jr. played valiantly, but there is limited upside with him going forward. As the season progresses, it might be valuable to take the redshirt off the freshman Thomas and get him some repetitions during live games.

Thomas is much more like Crouch than George Jr., and Illinois might run into the same issues that it did with Crouch if Thomas can’t complete the simplest of passes. The only way to find out is to play him.

I’m not sure how much Thomas needs to play to make it worth burning his redshirt, but it’s something that Lovie Smith and his staff need to think about, especially now that Crouch seemingly no longer plays quarterback.

Illinois will be stuck with moral victories until it can turn drives into touchdowns

Execution and scoring touchdowns was the issue last week against Nebraska (six drives in Nebraska territory netted a grand total of six points) and the same issues cropped up again Saturday.

Illinois scored just one touchdown despite five trips to the red zone against the Hawkeyes. It’s hard to win with that kind of efficiency.

Case in point: Illinois outgained Iowa 446-441, outpossessed them 31:40 to 28:20, and lost by 29 points.

So it’s another moral victory because Illinois played well for long stretches, but the box score just shows another loss by a significant margin.