On Saturday, Illinois plays its biggest game in a decade.
They are favored against the Iowa Hawkeyes, who they haven’t beaten since 2008. With a win, the Illini can silence the doubters that their win over Wisconsin was a fluke and cement their place at the top of the Big Ten West.
Around campus, the vibe around football is different. Instead of going to Kams, Lions, or Joes, students are buying tickets and the marketing department is attempting to sell out Memorial Stadium. With this increased hype comes greater expectations for the Illini.
Before the Illini play Iowa on Saturday, let’s preview the Iowa Hawkeyes.
Season So Far
After last year’s loss in the Big Ten Championship, Iowa had high expectations for this season. They brought back key players, but this season has been a disappointment.
In the opening game of the season, Iowa beat South Dakota State 7-3 by scoring a field goal and two safeties. In subsequent games, Iowa lost to Iowa State but beat Nevada and Rutgers.
Last weekend, they got dominated by Michigan 27-14. Their offense was particularly inconsistent.
Even for Iowa, this offense is shockingly bad, ranking as the second worst offense in the nation (only Colorado State is worse). They have averaged 4.26 yards per play and 16.4 points per game.
Illinois has the 55th best offense in the country and has scored 29.4 points per game. The Illinois defense will try to stifle the Iowa offense by topping their running game.
Kirk Ferentz has been the head coach of Iowa since 1999—but it feels like forever. In his tenure, he has only lost to Illinois thrice, and only once since 2003.
As usual, Iowa runs a run-heavy offense led by a strong offensive line. This season, the run game has struggled, averaging a paltry 2.8 yards per attempt. Iowa intends to have their defense create turnovers that give their offense opportunities to score.
The Iowa offense is coached by Brian Ferentz, Kirk Ferentz’s son. Nothing like good old nepotism. He has come under intense criticism this season because of the stagnant Iowa offense.
On the defensive end, the unit is led by Phil Parker. The Iowa defense has been on par with past seasons as they are ranked the 9th best unit in the country and the 3rd best scoring defense.
Spencer Petras is the third-year starter for Iowa. In five games this season, he has thrown for two touchdowns and 770 yards. In QBR, Petras is a dismal 127th among 129 quarterbacks in college football. He has played uninspired in recent games, often overthrowing Iowa wide receivers or not even hitting them on the run.
Iowa’s running back room is led a two-headed monster: Kaleb Johnson and Leshon Williams. Johnson has three touchdowns this season while Williams has two. Johnson is a speed running back while Williams is a power back. Both are effective running backs that will make up most of Iowa’s offense production.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
Only one wide receiver on Iowa has over 10 receptions—Arland Bruce IV. He has 12 receptions for 139 carries.
Beyond that, Nico Ragaini has been productive in three games this season including catching four passes for 55 yards against Michigan. Overall, the Iowa wide receiver room is very weak.
Besides the running backs, Iowa’s tight end room has been the most productive part of the offense. Sam LaPora leads all Iowa receivers with 21 receptions for 178 yards. Luke Lachey has also been productive with 9 receptions for 141 yards. Look for Iowa to try to get the ball to their tight ends.
Iowa’s defense is the strongest component of the team. Defensive back Cooper DeJean plays an important role and has had three interceptions and 31 turnovers. DeJean is an absolute ball hawk who is a big playmaker for the Iowa defense.
In addition, linebacker Jack Campbell leads the Hawkeyes in total tackles with 49. Overall, the Iowa defense is talented and will attempt to limit Illinois’ efficiency and create turnovers.
Expectations are high for this game, so Bret Bielema will need to find a way to prevent a hangover after the big win at Wisconsin. Memorial Stadium will be (hopefully) sold out or at least mostly full, which will create an atmosphere not seen at Illinois in years.
This game is going to be a slugfest the entire time, with both teams relying on their run game. To win, Illinois will need to find ways to throw the ball against the Iowa defense and win the field position battle. They also can’t have turnovers that give the Iowa offense good field position.
To all Illinois fans, pack the stadium. Make it an atmosphere never seen at Illinois. I-L-L!