Illinois has lost to the Hawkeyes four times in a row, and hasn’t secured a victory since the 2008 season. The two teams went five consecutive years without facing each other until the conference aligned the divisions into the East/West format, which forces the two to square off every year. (Long live the Leaders and the Legends!)
While the rest of the sports universe has moved into the space and pace generation, Iowa has stayed tried and true to smash mouth fundamental football, for the most part.
Akrum Wadley ran all over Illinois last year. Thankfully, Wadley, along with all-conference lineman Sean Welsh and James Daniels have departed from the program. Unfortunately, the state of Iowa makes two things: corn and offensive lineman. Even if their offensive attack isn’t up to their standards, their system and strength is likely to still be a challenge for a young Illini front seven.
The main difference with this version of the Iowa offense is quarterback Nate Stanley. Stanley made big throws in big moments and posted a TD-INT ratio of 26-6 last season. He provided a different spark from under center by giving the Hawkeyes a chance when they found themselves behind the chains. Of course, it helps when you have a weapon like TE Noah Fant, who will be a matchup nightmare for the Illini.
The always sound Iowa defense loses a few big names including CB Josh Jackson and LB Josey Jewell. Star freshman A.J. Epenesa returns and is part of a strong pass rush that should help alleviate the loss of Jackson on the back end. Iowa has a bit of a question mark at LB since the lose Jewell and Niemann who were consistent, productive staples in the middle of a tough unit.
Iowa loses a lot of familiar names. However, that’s the difference between a program like Illinois and a program like Iowa. The Hawkeyes have built a stable system and a depth chart that is built to replenish it’s veteran talent. We may not know the names of their stars just yet, but they have the horses and the structure to produce them as they turn into upperclassmen. That’s what Lovie is trying to build in Champaign.
Iowa’s style and consistency is going to continue to be a tough matchup for Illinois until they can grow into a stronger, tougher and deeper football team. Iowa is going to manage the clock, limit its mistakes, and bend but not break. They know what they want to do and they do it well. It will be harder for Illinois to break off big plays and catch a team like Iowa in multiple mistakes in a game. Those are the kind of breaks that a younger, less talented Illinois squad needs to win Big Ten football games at this juncture.
That’s why Iowa sits at the ninth-most winnable game. Iowa may take a step back this year as they lose a lot of great players from last year’s team. Nate Stanley may take a step back from a surprising sophomore season. And the game is in Champaign. It’s not inconceivable that the Illini pull this one out, but it’s not the first one to put your money down on either.