My, my, my. The fortunes of Illinois football have certainly changed during the past month. DID YOU KNOW THE ILLINI ARE ON A FOUR-GAME WINNING STREAK?!
The Orange & Blue have qualified for a bowl game for the first time under Lovie Smith, and optimism is sky high. The Fighting Illini (6-4) visit Kinnick Stadium to take on the Iowa Hawkeyes (7-3) this Saturday. Iowa City has not been kind to the Illini recently.
From TCR’s Know Your Opponent series this summer:
The Hawkeyes haven’t lost to Illinois at Kinnick Stadium since 1999 — Kirk Ferentz’s FIRST SEASON at Iowa. Santana’s “Smooth” was the No. 1 song on the radio. The Illini’s offensive starters that day included: Kurt Kittner, Rocky Harvey, Brandon Lloyd, Tony Pashos, Luke Butkus, Neil Rackers...and Josh Whitman. Yep, it’s been awhile.
Iowa is feeling good after knocking off previously unbeaten Minnesota. Here’s what the Illini need to do to spoil that.
Put Pressure on the Quarterback
That note seems like a no-brainer, but Iowa QB Nate Stanley has a propensity to make mistakes. He doesn’t have the mobility to get himself out of trouble and can panic when the pocket breaks down. While he has a stronger arm and better statistics, Stanley hasn’t exhibited the same improvisational skills we’ve seen from Brandon Peters. Illini fans have witnessed Peters freeze while blitzing, but Stanley also has a tendency to hold on to the football too long.
Illinois’ pass rush hasn’t been great — even when Wole Betiku was healthy — and Iowa’s o-line has two future NFL tackles, Alaric Jackson & Tristan Wirfs. However, the Hawkeyes’ pass protection has been leaky at times. The Illini have had lots of their top defensive playmakers (Betiku, Jake Hansen, Isaiah Gay, Bobby Roundtree, Jamal Woods) miss time due to injury, yet they’ve still managed to lead the nation in takeaways. “Lovie Ball” needs to make an appearance in Iowa City.
Feed The Bhebhe
Reggie Corbin continues to be a stalwart in the backfield. It’s been fun to see the emergence of Dre Brown. But that historic comeback against Michigan State simply doesn’t happen without Josh Imatorbhebhe. The Southern Cal transfer caught a pair of long touchdowns and the critical fourth down pass that prolonged the Illini’s game-winning drive.
Imatorbhebhe has just 29 catches this season, but he’s made them count — the 6-foot-2 wideout is averaging 20.6 yards per reception, good for second in the conference. He’s been the physical big-play threat the Illini passing game had lacked for years. Bhebhe has demonstrated that he doesn’t need to get the ball much to take over a game.
Iowa has a top-30 pass defense, but the B1G’s best receivers have killed them. Purdue’s David Bell had 13 catches for 197 yards. Michigan’s Nico Collins had 3 grabs for 63 yards, including a long of 51. Wisconsin’s Quintez Cephus caught 5 passes for 94 yards. Golden Gophers Rashod Bateman and Tyler Johnson combined for 15 catches and 268 yards last Saturday.
You obviously don’t want to abandon the run altogether, but Brandon Peters should be throwing to Bhebhe early and often.
Stuff The Run
Speaking of the ground game, Iowa finally figured out that freshman Tyler Goodson is their best running back. He finally earned a start last week and was a big part in the Hawkeyes’ win over Minnesota. In my view, he — not Nate Stanley, not even A.J. Epenesa — is the guy Illinois has to worry about most.
The Fighting Illini are ranked 103rd nationally against the run, ceding 196.2 yards per game — only Rutgers is worse in the B1G. Michigan State, by far the conference’s worst running attack, sliced and diced the Illini for 275 yards. The Hawkeyes are 97th in rushing but Goodson has breathed life into an otherwise average offense.
Iowa has primarily been a run-oriented team under Kirk Ferentz. Goodson — last season’s Gatorade Player of the Year in Georgia — has the kind of breakaway speed that can’t be matched by backfield mates Toren Young, Mekhi Sargent & Ivory Kelly-Martin. The priority should be to bottle up Goodson and make Nate Stanley beat you throwing the football.
In case you’ve forgotten (hahahahahahahahahaha just kidding), Iowa administered Illinois’ worst defeat in school history, 63-0, last season in Champaign. A win on Saturday would provide a sweet dose of revenge for the Illini and further signify the football program’s change in direction.
Illinois will be playing meaningful football in November and December (maybe even January!). That can’t be denied. But please win this one for me, if for no other reason than I can gloat in front of my wife.