In most situations, coaches and teams would celebrate a bye week. It’s a time for players to nurse some injuries and recoup their bodies for the final stretch of the season. It’s a time for Illinois Fighting Illini coaches to hit the recruiting trail, for the first time able to sell some on-field success as direct evidence this program is heading in the right direction.
This is not like most situations. Coach Smith talked about momentum pre- and post-Michigan State victory. The Fighting Illini are on a roll and are feeling confident, and this particular game against this particular opponent needs no extra motivational speech or cliché-ridden rant about how this is a neighboring state rival in the Big Ten West division.
63-0. It’s the first, only and last time we’ll mention it in this article scouting the Iowa Hawkeyes. These extra days to prepare for the 2019 Iowa Hawkeyes has only allowed 63-0 to fester in the minds of the Illini players heading into this Saturday. It was rock bottom.
Now we here. The Final Frontier. Let the winning streak continue.
When Iowa Has The Ball
This is the last time Illinois will have to play against Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley. Stanley is 2-0 against Illinois in his career (he did not play in the 2016 game as a freshman), and the Menomonie, Wisc. product will graduate in the spring and will likely be a late-round NFL Draft pick. At 6-foot-4 and weighing over 235 pounds, there is a lot to like and work with when it comes to evaluating Stanley as a potential backup quarterback in the pros.
In 2019, Stanley has completed 60.7 percent of his passes for 14 touchdowns and five interceptions. He leads the Big Ten Conference in pass completions and is second in pass attempts. In Iowa’s last three games (win at Northwestern, loss at Wisconsin, win versus Minnesota), Stanley has five touchdown passes and no interceptions. At this late point in the season, he’s playing solid, mistake-free football.
Another Hawkeyes Top Prospect at Offensive Tackle
Since this is Iowa, and Iowa is as on-brand as Big Ten bully football gets, it’s about time we recognized an offensive lineman with an imminent NFL future.
Tristan Wirfs is by no means a small human being at 6-foot-5 and 322 pounds. He primarily plays right tackle in college, but has played on the left side too and projects well at either spot in the NFL where he is likely a first round pick come this Spring. Tristan Wirfs is the Big Ten’s top-rated NFL offensive line prospect, and he is expected to leave for the pros once this current junior season of his is over.
Wirfs is a people mover and is one of the few 4-star or better prospects on the Iowa Hawkeyes football team. He’s the only player to have started as a true freshman at the tackle position under head coach Kirk Ferentz, which says a lot about his natural gifts as an offensive lineman. He struggled somewhat in the Michigan game over a month ago and he still has some development and technique to improve on. He was a Pro Football Focus standout two weeks ago against Wisconsin.
Not your typical Iowa run game
Iowa’s top running back Mekhi Sargent does not have a single 100-yard rushing game this year. Lately and against Minnesota last weekend, this has been a running back by committee approach. Iowa splits carries between Sargent, true freshman Tyler Goodson and redshirt junior Toren Young.
Running back Mekhi Sargent is good, but certainly not great by Iowa standards. He’s no Akrum Wadley or Leshun Daniels Jr or Mark Weisman (shoutout to our Adlai E. Stevenson HS followers including Managing Editor Emeritus Stephen Cohn). The power back has just four touchdowns on the year, and he’s not the most talented running back on the team — that’s Tyler Goodson. Goodson is extremely explosive and he’s fast and elusive enough to run to the sidelines and run right past outside linebackers.
*Goodson appeared to leave the Minnesota game late after tweaking an ankle. Kirk Ferentz after the game said his absence in the waning minutes was precautionary, so we can assume he’ll be ready to go against the Illini.
On the whole, Iowa’s run game is not as dominant (they rank 10th in total rush yards and rush yards per game in the Big Ten) as they’ve been in years past, and more onus is placed on Nate Stanley to make big throws down the field. Iowa is typically a run-first football team. This season, it’s more of a balanced pass-run approach.
When Illinois Has The Ball
Another week, another impressive D-line the Illini face
Brandon Peters has got to get the ball out quickly on Saturday. Two weeks ago, Michigan State’s defensive line was (supposed to be) the strength of Sparty’s team. With these Iowa Hawkeyes, it’s a similar situation along the defensive front seven.
The Big Ten has three of the best and most NFL-ready defensive ends in the country in Ohio State’s Chase Young, Penn State’s Yetur Gross-Matos and Iowa’s A.J. Epenesa. Illinois only has to play one of those three this season — and Epenesa is back to wreak havoc on what is an improved, and really a strength of the team in the Illini offensive line.
Epenesa had eight tackles, 1.5 sacks and a scoop-and-score touchdown against the Illini in 2018. The 6-foot-6, 280-pound beast could play as a true, pass rushing defensive end or he can sit back as a 3-4 outside linebacker — he’s fast and skilled enough to cover tight ends and slot receivers in the short passing game. He gets after the quarterback, too. He has 7.0 sacks this season and in 2018 led the Big Ten in forced fumbles.
Junior Chauncey Golston is another defensive lineman who will jump off the screen. He does not really have the measurables as Epenesa or some of the other top d-linemen in the conference on teams like Wisconsin, Penn State or Northwestern, but he’s a productive football player who gets the job done and has improved year after year in Iowa City.
Iowa’s secondary is usually good. Especially Michael Ojemudia.
Depending on how Michael Ojemudia tests at the combine, he could be a third or fourth round NFL pick, joining Hawkeye DB alums already in the NFL such as Amani Hooker, Desmond King II, Josh Jackson, Greg Mabin, Micah Hyde and Jake Gervase. The fact that he’s big and has a lot to work with especially when it comes to coming up to stop run just adds more versatility to what he’s able to already do defending the pass.
Ojemudia did not play in the Minnesota game and he is not listed on Iowa’s depth chart ahead of the game this weekend — however in his place Riley Moss got the start and the sophomore had an interception against the Gophers. Moss is a native Iowan and his only Power 5 offer was from the Hawkeyes. Cornerback Matt Hankins will start on the opposite side.
Senior Kristian Welch is the anchor at middle linebacker. He’s coming off of a career game against Gophers: 11 tackles including a sack. He’s their Jake Hansen, Dele Harding type who can make plays all over the field and rack up the stats.
Iowa is a well-coached defensive team. In the Big Ten, only Ohio State has given up less points than the Hawkeyes. Iowa’s better at stopping the run than they are at stopping the pass, but they don’t make many mistakes.
Iowa and Penalties: A lesson in discipline
Iowa is the least penalized team in the Big Ten. They don’t beat themselves. Iowa has only 42 penalties on the year through 10 games — the only teams with fewer penalties in FBS are Air Force, Wake Forest and Rice (I find it interesting/non-coincidental that all three of those schools have excellent academic reputations, but that’s neither here nor there). Against Minnesota last week, Iowa had just three penalties for 16 yards. Against Wisconsin the week before (a close 24-22 loss in Madison) Iowa had just three penalties for 25 yards.
Those were close games against ranked Big Ten West opponents. If Illinois wants to keep this one close, Lovie Smith’s group can’t revert back to the carelessness and penalty-prone ways of the pre-winning streak past.
Special Teams Notes
Kicking and punting
Iowa’s junior kicker Keith Duncan is one of the best in the Big Ten and in the country. He’s a perfect 21 for 21 on extra points and has made 23 of his 26 field goals. His 23 made field goals leads the country. His 26 attempts also leads the country.
The punter is Michael Sleep-Dalton (yes, that’s his real name). He’s a senior transfer from Arizona State and this is his first, last and only season as a Big Ten Football player. His 42 yards-per-punt average is decent. He’s not Blake Hayes, that’s for sure.
Junior wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette is Iowa’s kick returner. Redshirt freshman wide receiver Nico Ragaini is the punt returner. Neither have scored special teams touchdowns this year, although Smith-Marsette did score a rushing touchdown against Middle Tennessee State back in September.