Iowa is due for a fall this season. The Hawkeyes have had a remarkable last few years, not only utilizing excellent players but also consistent good fortune to become one of the nation's ranked teams. Even nationally elite teams have trouble maintaining more than three straight 10 win seasons. Iowa will likely find it improbable as well.
Iowa fans will quickly discount the importance of luck in their recent successes, but how else can you explain being able to free a fifth string walk-on running back for good gains throughout this past season after losing their top four players to injury? What but good fortune could help a team field a new quarterback each of three consecutive years and still win frequently? And what other than fate could possibly have given them that miraculous last second victory last January against LSU in the Capitol One Bowl? That surprising result was a peak experience for Iowa, and a down cycle from there is inevitable.
Iowa has lost some quality players to graduation, and their replacements are less experienced and possibly less capable. Their two-deep is loaded with youngsters who lack experience, and even some of their upperclassmen may be having trouble getting inspired to improve upon previous successes. Perhaps that can explain losses to Iowa State and Ohio State in a 2-2 start to the 2005 campaign.
Whatever the reason, they are expected to bounce back and play well against Illinois this Saturday in Iowa City. Originally, it was thought the Hawkeyes might take Illinois lightly because we play them at Kinnick Stadium in between two important road tests at Ohio State and Purdue. But their poor start will make them work hard to get back on a winning track against Illinois. And Purdue's loss to Minnesota last weekend may diminish somewhat the threat the highly rated Boilermakers pose to Iowa on October 8.
Both Iowa and Illinois were embarrassed this past weekend, so it is possible both teams will play inspired and give fans a good game to watch. Certainly, both will be challenged by their coaches to rise up and fulfill their potential. But it is impossible to predict anything but a victory for Iowa since Illinois' collapse against Michigan State will give the Hawkeyes tremendous confidence going into their Homecoming game.
Iowa found it practically impossible to establish a running game against Ohio State, but the Buckeyes have wonderful athletes on the defensive line and exceptional linebackers. It will be interesting to see if Iowa's rebuilt offensive line can throw the Illini around as well as MSU did. Illinois' defense has been porous, but the Iowa offensive line is not yet showing star quality. Thus, Illinois will hope to slow a Hawkeye running game that will receive much emphasis during practice this week.
The Illini will also try to follow tOSU's lead in containing the scrambles of star quarterback Drew Tate. The Buckeyes kept Tate in the pocket where he is limited due to a lack of height and arm strength. If the Illini can somehow pinch in the pocket and force him to throw from there, we have a chance to limit the Hawkeye offense. But if he is allowed to break contain and throw on the run, he can pick us apart just like last year in Champaign.
The Iowa defense has some good performers, but they gave up 31 points to an Ohio State offense that is talented but has struggled so far. Perhaps the Illini can mix up the Iowa defense enough to move up and down the field. This will be necessary since we will likely have to outscore them to win. Until the Illini defense proves it can share the load, the offense will have to take responsibility for our fate.
Regardless of what Iowa brings to the table, this game is really about Illinois and whether it can make the improvements necessary to be competitive in a Big 10 that is more loaded with outstanding teams than any time in this writer's 50+ years of observation. There are many questions unresolved, and this Saturday will begin to give us some answers.
For example, are we prepared to fight unabated for 60 full minutes after the ego-deflating debacle against MSU? Some fans thought the Illini were quitters last week. Any incentive to play inspired ended before halftime when MSU went up by 31 points. Whether any players actually quit or simply found themselves unable to counteract their tremendous physical disadvantage with emotion is still unanswered. If they quit, they won't play this week or anytime soon. But if they can keep their confidence up and play as Fighting Illini are expected to perform, then we will see improved play this week.
Also, will Tim Brasic continue to learn the offense and find ways of attacking blitzing defenses? Will he stay in the pocket long enough to go through his progressions and find open men on the medium and deep throws, or will he flush at the first sign of pressure and end up running for his life? Will he recognize blitzes quickly enough to know what area of the field is now open for pass receptions? Will his receivers break free from aggressive defenders long enough to give Brasic a decent target? And will they catch the passes thrown them?
Will we be able to establish our own running game? We have some decent runners, but we are having trouble getting them opportunities. Teams will defend the option like MSU did successfully, so we must find additional methods of freeing our runners and balancing the offense. Is our offensive line mature enough yet to work together as a group and create holes for our runners (and protect the quarterback on passes)?
Defensively, will our front four learn to separate ourselves from offensive linemen trained to use holding techniques not called penalties by officials? If not, Iowa is just as well versed in this technique as Michigan State and will control the line of scrimmage. Will our linebackers find space to use their speed, or will they get tangled up as our defensive linemen get pushed back into them? It appeared as if we played MSU without linebackers, their effectiveness was so diminished. Will our secondary ever get an interception? They must get there to intercept it. And will they learn better how to tackle by wrapping up?
At this point in time, while an upset is always possible, we must establish more basic goals. We need to improve, the sooner the better. We were showing signs of that improvement through our first three games, but memories of the last two years flowed quickly into the minds of players and fans alike during the MSU catastrophe. It is difficult to prevent discouragement and depression, but the players and coaches must find the strength within themselves to do just that. If they will fight Iowa for 60 minutes, the results will reflect it.
Some fans have already given up, but they will not tolerate the team giving up. So even if we lose, if we play our best we can use the game as a stepping stone to future wins. Coach Zook is in his first year, and he will improve the team both through coaching and recruiting. But how long that will take depends on whether the present players can put last week's pain behind them and demonstrate they can win this year and not just look to the long-term future.
Iowa is favored by 2-3 touchdowns, so no major upset is anticipated. But if the Illini can put the "Fight" back into "Fighting Illini", we can give them a good game. That will buoy the spirits of everyone involved. A win would be much better, but our first priority is to neutralize the bad memories from last week.
Can the Illini Rebound Against Iowa?
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