1. Iowa had a magical season in 2015 -- a 12-0 start, Big Ten West title and Rose Bowl appearance -- where it won every close game until a 16-13 loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship. The Hawkeyes seem to have regressed to the mean this season, losing three close games (and getting blown out at Penn State) -- that is until last week's huge win over Michigan. What's been the difference between last season and this season?
I would say that the biggest difference has been the ineptitude of the offense. They're entirely way too one-dimensional. Their passing game can't get going at all. They defeated Michigan but only threw for 66 yards. It's been that way for a large majority of the season. The issues stem from pretty bad pass protection, injuries, lack of chemistry, and receivers not creating any plays or opportunities.
Because of this, everyone can just sell out against the running game. LeShun Daniels and Akrum Wadley are good backs ,but even they can't overcome having to run into stacked boxes on every play. The worst thing is the difficult positions they're putting their defense in because of all the three and outs. The defense has their backs against the wall on nearly every possession in terms of field position. They're also out on the field an abnormal amount of time because of the difficulty to even achieve a first down offensively.
2. Iowa's offense has struggled this season, especially the passing offense. C.J. Beathard had a huge junior season. How would you evaluate his performance this year, and what's lacking on offense?
It would be inaccurate to say that it's entirely the fault of his supporting cast. He shares some blame. Beathard doesn't seem as mobile this season (possibly because of injury) and his comfort in the pocket is shaken due to the enormous amount of pressure he's been under. Couple that with the fact that he's lost his two best options in the passing game to injury in Matt VandeBerg and George Kittle.
So, it's a couple things. He's not as comfortable in the pocket. He's not as mobile. His best weapons are injured. He lacks the trust and chemistry in the receivers and weapons that are available.
3. Iowa has two studs on defense in DT Jaleel Johnson and CB Desmond King. What makes them so great and who are the X-factors for this Iowa defense?
Jaleel Johnson is spectacular because of the way he can shed blocks and make an impact in the backfield. He's a penetrator and can do so with a lot of regularity, but sometimes it does vary game to game on the impact he does have. Desmond King locks down one side of the field every game. He allows very few receptions because of how tight of coverage he plays but he can also bait quarterbacks into making the throws he wants them to make to give himself a shot at an interception. And as he showed against Michigan, he's fantastic against the run.
One name left out that also leaves an imprint on this defense is linebacker Josey Jewell. He leads the Big Ten in tackles and is the workhorse and the captain of the defense. He gets everyone lined up where they need to be, flies to the ball, can cover sideline to sideline, and plays hard-nosed. He's the heart and soul of the unit.
4. Kirk Ferentz's contract runs through 2087 (actually, it's 2026). Is this the healthiest the Iowa football program has been under Ferentz?
To be fair, this is only my second year covering this program so I'm probably not the most qualified reporter to answer this question. But if I were to tackle this question I would answer 'no' at the current time. But it definitely has the potential to reach that point. I think for the answer to become 'yes' they would have to sustain this level for another two to three seasons. They've had some other good runs during the Ferentz era that included a couple Orange Bowl appearances, and 6-4 right now isn't exactly meeting expectations.
An 8-4 final record could remedy that to an extent and keeping the recruiting class that they have formed intact would go a long ways as well. If quarterback Nate Stanley becomes the quarterback many think he could be, they could have another two or three highly successful seasons on deck.
5. What are the keys to an Iowa victory on Saturday and what is your score prediction?
I think for Iowa to win, they just have to win the battle up front. They've showed no signs of the passing game taking any steps forward at all so they'll have to run the ball to win. Their offensive line did get going in the second half against Michigan, and that's against the Wolverines defensive line. If they can carry that success over into the Illinois game, I think they'll find success. They at least need to avoid an abundance of three and outs as to not put their defense in harm's way.
Limiting the big plays defensively will also be key. Wes Lunt will return and he has the arm talent to create some huge plays in the passing game. The running backs, espeicially Kendrick Foster, have shown that they can reel off long runs this season and that's where a majority of the success Illinois has had on offense has come from, explosive plays.
Yeah, Iowa beat Michigan last week, but this is still the same team that was shredded by Penn State, only beat Rutgers and Minnesota by seven points, and lost at home to North Dakota State and Northwestern. This will be a tight game, much the same way it was a year ago in Kinnick Stadium.
I think Iowa escapes with a narrow victory, 24-19.