The Illinois Fighting Illini look to snap a 7-game losing streak against the Iowa Hawkeyes this Saturday at Kinnick Stadium. It’s senior day in Iowa City, so we should totally expect a 63-0 Illini win, right? Too soon?
Illinois is fresh off a bye week and the Hawkeyes defeated Minnesota last Saturday. Both teams have plenty to play for — Iowa still has a shot at a Big Ten West title, while Illinois is competing for a chance at bowl eligibility in Bret Bielema’s first season at the helm.
To get to know a bit more about the Hawkeyes, we chatted with Jonah Parker from SB Nation’s Iowa site, Black Heart Gold Pants. Take a look.
TCR: Iowa enters Saturday’s game at 8-2 but this team doesn’t resemble the Hawkeye teams we’re used to seeing. How would you grade the season so far?
BHGP: So much of how you grade a season is driven by expectations entering the year. heading into 2021, I think most Iowa fans expected a season in the 8-4 to 9-3 range. We were told all offseason how great Indiana and Iowa State were going to be and playing them early looked like a recipe for a very slow start for the Hawkeyes. When Iowa entered the meat of the Big Ten season undefeated with wins over those two teams the media had convinced us were destined to be great, the expectations changed.
Hence, when Iowa dropped games to Purdue and Wisconsin, this season immediately began to feel like an immense disappointment. Once again, the Hawkeyes enter the home stretch needing help to win the West and that’s a major sticking point for Iowa fans. But in retrospect, two more wins to close out the season should be considered a very good season for a group that we knew would have issues on both sides of the line.
TCR: I’m still trying to figure out exactly HOW the Hawkeyes won last week. From a statistical perspective, Minnesota should’ve dominated that game. What do you think made the difference last Saturday?
BHGP: For starters, throw out the statistics when you’re talking about the Hawkeyes. Iowa is never going to win a beauty contest and virtually every game they’ve won this season has appeared to be a statistical anomaly. That said, Minnesota tried to out-Ferentz Kirk Ferentz and went ultra conservative when it came to 4th down attempts in plus territory and it ultimately cost them.
The Gophers found immense success running against an Iowa defense that has been pretty mediocre at stopping the ground game, but couldn’t cap off drives with touchdowns. They ate up clock and yardage limiting the Hawkeyes to just 49 offensive plays. With an offense that’s been as blah as Iowa’s, that should have been a recipe for success. But the Hawkeyes broke character and hit a few big plays that were the difference in the game.
TCR: There’s been quite a bit of criticism lobbed at the offense this year, specifically towards OC Brian Ferentz. Obviously, being the head coach’s son is going to add to the scrutiny, but do you think it’s justified? What’s the general feeling from your point of view?
BHGP: The default answer from Hawkeye fans, and this is not exclusive to Brian Ferentz but it is especially true of him, is to fire everyone. Finished 10-3 but lost to Wisconsin? Fire the head coach. Finished 6-2, in the top-15 but lost an early one to Northwestern? Fire everyone.
I’m personally less trigger happy than most Hawkeyes fans you’ll find with a keyboard. I’ve been much more patient with Brian Ferentz than the commentariat and that’s been driven by a couple things. For starters, this offensive line has been brutal. The run game has not gotten going because the line can’t find any sort of consistency, particularly on the edge. In the passing game, it’s been worse.
That was exacerbated by a literal statue at quarterback who only really moved in the pocket to step into sacks, not avoid them. Spencer Petras does a lot of things really well (again, I’m more optimistic than most on him as well) but his pocket presence and lack of mobility is a terrible match with this line.
Having said all that, Brian did a really poor job of alleviating those issues. He has consistently been inconsistent, but not in the way that keeps defenses on their toes. Iowa has rarely run the ball out of 10 or 11 personnel and even more rarely out of the shotgun. They’ve almost never thrown out of 22 personnel. They have run the ball on virtually every single second down following a first down incompletion. They have gone to the screen game only in obvious screen situations. He insisted on sticking solely with the zone scheme rather than mixing in any gap (which they have done in the past) despite no cohesion up front. And not once has he used a tight end of running back to chip edge rushers to help out struggling tackles.
That’s a lot of words to say Brian Ferentz 100% deserves criticism, but I don’t think he has done anything worthy of the “Fire Ferentz” talk you’ll here from most Iowa fans.
TCR: Iowa also made a QB change due to injury. Spencer Petras is out, Alex Padilla is in. How has that changed the ceiling for what’s otherwise been a fairly bland offense?
BHGP: Here’s the part where I flip what I just said and actually give a littler praise to Brian Ferentz. With Padilla in for Petras, we’ve actually seen a pretty significant change in play calling.
Padilla doesn’t have the arm strength of Petras, meaning some of those long throws on out routes to the far hash have essentially fallen out of the playbook, but he more than makes up for it by being mobile in the pocket. The result has been the return of rollouts, bootlegs and waggles as Ferentz has really leaned into the play action passing game that is the foundation of the Iowa offense under his father.
With Petras under center, Iowa ran play action on roughly 20% of passing plays. I don’t have the stats but it sure felt like roughly 90% of those ended in a sack. Since Padilla took over against Northwestern, 40% of Iowa’s passing plays have been in play action and the sack rate is way down given Padilla’s ability to extend the play an escape first pressure. We’ve also seen an uptick in the screen game and that’s meant utilization in more than simply third and long situations. That’s made those calls much more effective as well as the Hawkeyes look to find alternatives to the run game on first down.
TCR: Kirk Ferentz amended his depth chart for this week’s game. What are the notable changes Illini fans should be looking at?
BHGP: Unfortunately, the depth chart you see released by KF is totally meaningless. What you see on paper every Monday afternoon is simply an update to reflect how the most recent game ended.
That said, we do have some notable updates from recent weeks. As noted, Padilla is now the starting QB. The other big one is the return of Riley Moss at corner. Moss exited midway through the win over Penn State and the Hawkeyes then lost his backup and special teams All-American (this really should be a thing beyond the guys who kick things and score points) Terry Roberts the following week. Having Moss back, even with a massive knee brace on and a noticeable difference in speed, is a big deal for the mentality of the defense.
The only other one I’ll call out, and it really is purely a paper thing here, is true freshman Keagan Johnson finally getting the nod as the starter at WR over Tyrone Tracy. Johnson has been the first WR on the field and out-snapped Tracy for something like five straight weeks but is finally listed as the starter now. He’s been tremendous and will certainly be a guy to watch on Saturday. It’s also worth watching how Tracy is utilized. He’s not as fast as Johnson, but he had a tremendous freshman season himself back in 2019 and has been publicly voicing his displeasure with his usage in recent weeks. That’s uncommon in Iowa City. Typically I would expect such a move to land him in the dog house seeing basically no targets this week, but both Kirk and Brian Ferentz have expressed support of Tracy and I could see them forcing things to get him touches this week.
TCR: As someone who was born & raised in “neutral” territory in the Illinois side of the Quad Cities, this game is definitely a rivalry IMO. Who ya got? How do you see things shaking out?
This one is tough to predict. Illinois does well what we have seen Iowa struggle with. I expect the Illini to punch the Hawkeyes in the mouth in the running game early and often while Iowa continues to run head first into a brick wall trying to do the same without success. I suspect Illinois grinds out an early lead, but we see Phil Parker make halftime adjustments (really the only complain you can make of Parker this season is he has stubbornly waited until halftime to make those adjustments instead of shifting strategies early in the game) that keep the Illini from topping mid-teens. I questions whether Iowa can duplicate the success they had a week ago with big plays, but having Padilla under center at least opens up that possibility and I’ll take them to connect on a couple to at least come out on top.
Iowa 24, Illinois 16
Many thanks to Jonah for his insight. You can follow him on Twitter @JPinIC_BHGP and Black Heart Gold Pants @BHGP. Check out TCR’s conversation HERE and Kirk Ferentz’s thoughts on this week’s matchup HERE.