History: The Illinois Fighting Illini are seeking their first win against the Iowa Hawkeyes since 2008. Iowa is on a four game winning steak against the Illini, although these two teams did not play against one another from 2009 to 2013 during the “Leaders vs Legends” Big Ten Football (mis)alignment.
The now for Illinois: “This is the playoffs for us” Lovie Smith said in his post-Nebraska game press conference and his Monday afternoon press conference, and he’s absolutely right. The Illini have four wins and need six to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2014. Iowa and a road game on Thanksgiving weekend at Northwestern is all that remains. Nebraska did beat Illinois by 19, but several dropped passes (five by my count) and a couple of muffed punts were the difference between a blowout loss and a reasonably competitive game. Quarterback AJ Bush is really coming into his own and is playing the best football of his life this late in the season.
The now for Iowa: Iowa is a hot mess right now, having lost three straight games by a combined 12 points. The last two were absolute gut killers: A 14-10 home loss at night to Northwestern and a 38-36, last-second-field-goal loss to Purdue in West Lafayette. Expectations were high for Iowa this season considering the return of quarterback Nate Stanley and the return of a feisty defensive front seven. Iowa will go bowling, and eight wins is definitely in the cards with Illinois and Nebraska left on the schedule. Somehow, even for Iowa — that feels disappointing.
WHEN IOWA HAS THE FOOTBALL
In typical, cliche Iowa fashion, the Hawkeyes’ top two targets are tight ends:
World class speedy receivers. Complex, spread em’ out wide offenses. Those are things that do not describe Iowa Hawkeyes football.
The 2018 Iowa Hawkeyes’ top pass catchers are tight ends T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant. Those two have combined for 74 receptions, 10 touchdowns and just over 1,000 yards. Dallas Clark. Scott Chandler. Tony Moeaki. Brandon Myers. C.J Fiedorowicz. George Kittle. Iowa is Tight End U in the Big Ten, and especially in this 2018 season that appears to be the case once again for a struggling offense.
Iowa is not the physical, punishing rushing team we’ve come to expect:
No Iowa running back has rushed for 100+ yards in a game this season. Against Northwestern last Saturday, the Hawkeyes ran for just 64 yards. Iowa’s leading running back — Mehki Sargent had 27 yards on 10 carries in that game. Nathan Stanley could be an all-world quarterback (he’s not), but with such a poor running game, no wonder he’s taken a step back in his junior season. The 2018 Hawkeyes clearly miss the consistency from Akrum Wadley, a player who rushed for over 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns in both 2017 and 2016.
Our friends over at Black Heart Gold Pants lament the lack of physicality of the offensive line, the poorest Iowa O-line in recent memory. Iowa is soft, and that could be a problem against an Illinois defensive line that is improving by the game. Of the 14 Big Ten teams, Iowa ranks 11th in rushing offense. Their longest running play of the season went for 40 yards. That ranks last in the Big Ten.
The Illini defensive woes continue:
The latest S&P has the Illinois defense ranked 122. There are 130 Division I football teams. The run-defense continues to struggle no matter who the Illini play.
The latest S&P+ updates for football via @SBN_BillC have good news and bad news for the Illini. Good news? We maintain the #100 spot thanks to our offense climbing to 59th. This offense is officially Above-Average!— The Champaign Room (@Champaign_Room) November 12, 2018
Bad news? The defense clocks in at #122 out of 130 teams. Barf.
WHEN ILLINOIS HAS THE FOOTBALL
AJ Bush is coming off of his two best games and he’ll have to carry Illinois the rest of the way:
As AJ Bush goes, so does this Fighting Illini team. He’s emerging as a leader. He’s taking control of this team and while he definitely misfires on some of his throws, his running ability and toughness is what this Illini offense needs down the stretch.
He had 326 rush yards these last two games against Nebraska and Minnesota. He had five rushing touchdowns and two passing touchdowns against the Cornhuskers and Gophers. As our wisest, most critically-thinking son Brandon Birkhead writes in his wrap-up of the Nebraska game, AJ Bush’s 187 yards on the ground against Nebraska is the most ever for an Illini quarterback in a single game.
Bush is reading defenses. He’s capitalizing on keeping the ball on zone-read option plays. With a likely less-than-100-percent Reggie Corbin, even more will be asked of the senior transfer quarterback to make good decisions and lead the rushing attack.
Iowa has one of the better defenses in the Big Ten... and the country:
The Hawkeyes get to the quarterback. Their 28 sacks is ten more than the Illini have on the season. In the Big Ten, only Penn State (34 sacks) and Michigan (29 sacks) have more sacks than Iowa has. A.J. Epenesa, a player Illinois natives are familiar with, leads the Hawkeyes with seven sacks.
Geno Stone is an outstanding safety, and he’ll likely be charged with trying to slow down Illini top target Ricky Smalling. Stone has four interceptions this season, including a pick-six against Penn State:
Iowa’s defense really doesn’t have a weakness. They are 10th in the country in total defense. It certainly wasn’t bad in last week’s loss to Northwestern — holding the Wildcats to 14 points usually results in a win and no one pins that loss on the D. Allowing 38 points to Purdue isn’t great — but this Purdue offense has been lights out, averaging 31 points per game.
The Illini haven’t faced a defense as good as Iowa’s all season long. In the Big Ten, only Michigan allows fewer yards-per-game than Iowa does.
Long Story Short:
Iowa’s offense is atrocious and wildly inconsistent. Iowa’s defense is very good and has kept the Hawkeyes competitive even in losses to Wisconsin, Penn State, Purdue and Northwestern.
That runs counter to the situation at Illinois. Illinois’ offense is good, but the defense is back-breakingly bad. Iowa has more talent and more of an identity than Illinois. Who comes out on top on Saturday? Illinois needs to win to reach the postseason.
Tune in on BTN at 2:30 CT