November 1st, 2008. 63,000 fans packed into Memorial Stadium to watch the Illinois Fighting Illini host the Iowa Hawkeyes. Juice Williams threw for 272 yards, including a 50-yard touchdown pass to Fred Sykes. Dere Hicks had a fumble recovery for a touchdown, and kicker Matt Eller added a pair of field goals to lead Illinois to a 27-24 win.
Why am I bringing up a game from 11 years ago? That was the last time the Illini hung a loss on the Hawkeyes. Iowa and Illinois wouldn’t play again until 2014, and with the exception of a 29-20 loss in 2015, the games haven’t been particularly close. And we all know what happened last season.
Iowa has a very similar makeup to its Outback Bowl-winning squad from a year ago, but lost many key playmakers on both sides of the ball.
Quarterback Nate Stanley enters his senior season with a chance to establish himself as one of the Hawkeyes’ all-time great signal callers. Iowa quarterbacks historically haven’t been known for top-tier production, but Stanley passed for 2,852 yards and 26 scores in 2018, the latter being second in the B1G and 22nd in the nation. In two seasons as a starter, Stanley has thrown 52 touchdowns — the most by any Hawkeye in a two-year span. He’s not without his warts, however. Stanley has maddened Iowa fans by missing in-stride receivers and frequently overthrowing deep balls. The 6-foot-4, 240-pounder certainly has pro potential because of his size and arm strength, but no longer has tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson to help pad his stats.
Protecting Stanley is an experienced offensive line that includes future NFLers Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs at left and right tackle, respectively.
A trio of running backs also returns for the Hawkeyes: Ivory Kelly-Martin, Mekhi Sargent and Toren Young. Sargent is probably the most effective runner of the three, but Iowa’s scheme — despite Kirk Ferentz’s penchant for a conservative, clock-control approach — rarely employs a dominant feature back.
Additionally, there are some serious questions in the receiving corps. Juniors Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette are atop Ferentz’s depth chart, but three redshirt freshmen — Calvin Lockett, Nico Ragaini, and Tyrone Tracy — are listed as backups on the two-deep.
Smith caught 28 passes for 361 yards and two touchdowns in 2018. Smith-Marsette (more on him later) put up nearly identical numbers, also tallying 361 yards on 23 receptions, with three total touchdowns.
And even at Iowa, where tight ends seemingly grow on trees, it’s a tall task to replace Fant and Hockenson, each of whom were selected in the first round of the NFL draft. Senior Nate Wieting is listed as the Hawkeyes’ starting tight end. Wieting, a Rockford native, caught just two passes for 51 yards last year. Don’t be surprised to see Shaun Beyer and Drew Cook in the tight end rotation, as well.
The name everybody knows heading into 2019 is A.J. Epenesa. The five-star defensive end is almost certain to be a top-10 pick in next spring’s NFL draft, and it’s easy to see why scouts are salivating over him. Epenesa is a physical freak at 6-foot-6, 280 pounds, and is an absolute game-wrecker. His talents were on full display during last year’s game in Champaign, but in case you needed additional proof, Epenesa led the conference with 10.5 sacks in 2018, and finished second in tackles for loss with 16.5. His physical stature and athletic skill reminds me of Julius Peppers.
Because of the attention Epenesa will attract from opposing coaches, it could be a huge season for Chauncey Golston on the other side of Iowa’s d-line. Golston, no slouch at 6-foot-5 and 270 pounds, recorded 35 tackles (nine tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks) in 2018 and led the B1G with three fumble recoveries. It wouldn’t shock me to see Golston also playing on Sundays next fall.
Taking a glance at the Iowa secondary, the Hawkeyes have decent depth, even with the departures of Jake Gervase and Amani Hooker. Senior cornerback Michael Ojemudia finished last season with 39 tackles, three interceptions, and six pass breakups. Geno Stone is a force at strong safety and tied for the team lead with four interceptions in 2018.
The aforementioned Ihmir Smith-Marsette will see more quality reps at wideout, but he was an absolute stud in the return game. He ran back 24 kickoffs for 707 yards — a 29.5 yard average that led the conference and was second in the entire country. The Illini’s kick coverage last year was lackluster, if I’m being genteel. Keep a watchful eye on #6 in black.
There are plenty of questions regarding Iowa’s kicking game. Keith Duncan connected on a 33-yard field goal to defeat No. 2 Michigan at Kinnick Stadium in 2016. Duncan was redshirted the following year and didn’t see the field at all in 2018 while backing up Miguel Recinos. This preseason Duncan is second on the depth chart behind junior Caleb Shudak, whose only game action came in last year’s Illinois game.
The Hawkeyes still need to sort out the punting situation, as well. Incumbent Colten Rastetter averaged fewer than 39 yards per punt last season, and will face competition in camp from Ryan Gersonde and Michael Sleep-Dalton, a grad transfer from Arizona State. Punting is a huge part of Iowa’s gameplan and this position battle could go on throughout 2019.
What To Expect
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.
I don’t foresee Illinois pulling off the upset here, but it isn’t out of the question. Shit, I’d be happy with a first quarter touchdown, just for the mere power of positivity. I think the biggest surprise about Iowa’s 63-0 thrashing last year was that the Hawkeyes normally aren’t a very high-scoring team and rarely blow anyone out. Iowa has the tendency to look unimpressive (even in victory). So why can’t that annual head-scratching loss come Nov. 23?
Chances are good that Iowa is rounding into form and is a lock for a bowl by the time they clash with the Illini. But, this could have all the makings of a “trap” game, as the Hawkeyes have a date with Nebraska the following week. One unexpected win may not right the ship but this could be the kind of surprise performance (see: last season’s Minnesota game) that helps put Illinois into bowl contention.