Illinois @ Iowa: A Preview

The Fighting Illini football season continues on Saturday with the Illini looking to bounce back from a humiliating loss last week at the hands of the Michigan State Spartans when they travel to Iowa City. IlliniBoard.com's Brad Leshyn breaks down the Iowa Hawkeyes in this game preview.

Well, at least the Illini made history. Of course, allowing 61 points and 705 yards isn't the kind of history you want to make. But that's over now, and it's time to focus on another early season disappointment: the Iowa Hawkeyes. This fall, the Hawkeyes have looked pretty pathetic themselves when they've butted heads with legitimate Division I programs. Iowa State spanked them 23-3 in Ames a few weeks ago. Yes, I realize Drew Tate had his bell rung, but would that have really helped? Then last week Ohio State steamrolled them 31-6 when the Hawks had a full roster to work with. It's Homecoming in Iowa City this week and cornfields throughout the state will be empty as alums and virtually all the rest of Iowa descends upon Kinnick Stadium to watch a game where either Iowa's offense or Illinois' defense has at least a temporary reprieve. However, if the Illini come out as flat as they did a week ago, Champaign Centennial would give them a battle, so if nothing else, Ron Zook needs to get the fire back in his team's belly.

Head Coach
Kirk Ferentz is one in a long line of successful coaches that have fallen from the Hayden Fry coaching tree. He served as the offensive line coach and running game coordinator for Fry from 1981-89 before traveling up to Maine for a three-year stint as their head coach. He further sharpened his wares with the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens before heading back to Iowa City to take over a cupboard that Fry had left barren. Despite a debut season in which he went 1-10, Captain Kirk is 44-33 overall in Iowa City and is 27-22 in league games. He has won a plethora of National Coach of the Year Awards thanks to three consecutive seasons with 10 or more wins, and is a two-time Big Ten Coach of the Year. Many figured that kind of success would be a given in 2005. Considering that much-improved Michigan State and Penn State are missing from the schedule, and that Michigan looks very pedestrian, it still may, but unless an offense is found, don't bet on it.

Offensive Preview
All the pieces were supposed to be in place for a powerhouse Black and Gold offensive juggernaut. For the first time in six years, they were returning its starting quarterback in junior Drew Tate, the Big Ten Preseason Offensive Player of the Year. Both starting wide receivers, Ed Hinkle and Clinton Solomon, were back. After enduring a 2004 season where a sixth-string walk-on (Sam Brownlee) led the team in rushing, Albert Young was expected to step up and provide the Hawks with a running game missing since the departure of Fred Russell. Well, in the two games against real opponents, the Hawkeyes have managed a mere three field goals. Last week they eked out 137 yards of offense, including minus-9 on the ground.

Tate is still the straw that stirs the proverbial drink, but last week that drink was a flat kiddie cocktail. Tate completed 22 of 39 throws for only 146 yards as Iowa was forced to punt on each of its first seven possessions. He's averaging only 137.2 passing yards per game, but thanks to two terrible opponents and a concussion he's only played the whole way once in four starts. His main targets are seniors Solomon and Hinkle. Solomon is the deep threat as his 17.3 yards per catch will attest and of his three TDs in 2005, his 71-yarder is Iowa's longest play of the young season. In 2004 he led the way with 905 receiving yards. Hinkle is the possession guy and he leads the club with 16 grabs. His 63 a year ago tied for the third highest single-season total in school history. TE Scott Chandler, brother of 2003 starting QB Nathan, is second on the club with 12 catches and freshman back-up Tony Moeaki is showing big play capabilities averaging 16.0 yards on 4 receptions. After suffering through season-ending injuries in each of the last two years, Albert Young is finally healthy and ready to prove he can carry the every-down load. In his first career start at Iowa State, he ran for 140 yards on 18 rushes and averages 80.8 yards per game on the season. He, like the rest of the Iowa offense, was stymied last week with only 25 yards in 10 carries.

Defensive Preview
The defense was as responsible for Iowa's success as anything a year ago, but replacing an entire front four is never easy, especially when two of them were stalwarts the likes of DE Matt Roth and DT Jonathan Babineaux. While Roth and Babineaux are now plying their trades in the NFL, the new line is still struggling to gain its identity. Despite the presence of All-Conference LBs Chad Greenway and Abdul Hodge, the Hawks still surrendered 530 total yards to Ohio State, 314 of which came on the ground. Sophomore DT Mitch King made his first start a week ago and registered six tackles. On the year he's third on the team with 22, six of which have come behind the line of scrimmage. DEs Kenny Iwebema and Mike Follett are tied for the team lead with three sacks apiece. Ryan Bain, a freshman DT from Bolingbrook who apparently had nowhere to play at Illinois, is working his way up the depth chart and should see plenty of time this week.

Greenway and Hodge are the stars of the unit. Both are reigning first team All-Big Ten performers and have a basketful of pre-season accolades on their resumes. Greenway currently leads the league with 49 tackles, 14 of which came last week, while Hodge has made 36 stops and has recovered two fumbles early on. Both will likely be among the top five tacklers in school history by the time their careers end in 2005. The defensive backfield also has plenty of experience in senior CBs Antwan Allen and Jovon Johnson. Allen, whose suspension vs. Ball State snapped a string of 38 consecutive starts, has picked off four passes in his career and amassed 140 tackles. Johnson has started every game the last three years and his 15 career picks rank third in school history. Safety Charles Godfrey made his first career start vs. OSU and was in on six tackles. Marcus Paschal started every game a year ago at safety and Miguel Merrick got plenty of experience a year ago as he started in place of an injured Sean Considine.

Final Analysis
This is an interesting game as neither team is exactly on a roll. Well, that's not altogether true as both were rolled over last week and need to get back on track. We all knew the Illini defense would struggle, but Iowa's also looks vulnerable as it made a mediocre Ohio State offense look unstoppable. Drew Stanton had his way with an uninterested Illini defense and Drew Tate should rediscover his swagger this week against an Illini defense that allows a staggering 7.2 yards per play. If the uninspiring Antonio Pittman can shred the Hawkeye run defense for 171 yards, the Illini RBs should have room to run, but the lack of any downfield passing game is hindering the running game by drawing eight men into the box. While ball control is the key to success for the 2005 Illini, Tim Brasic needs to prove he can get the ball downfield on occasion to open up the running lanes. One thing I am certain of is the Illini will be ready to play this week, but the Hawkeyes are still too strong and they will prevail 31-17.

Random Musings From My Couch
  • Considering Ron Zook's boundless energy and enthusiasm, it was hard to fathom the lack of emotion the Illini showed last week. It seemed like a Ron Turner flashback. If there was a high point, it was that I was able to be napping on my couch by mid afternoon.
  • Michigan has fallen out of the AP Top 25 for the fist time since October 18, 1988, a span of 114 weeks. Is there a more underachieving coach than Lloyd Carr? Considering our recent football ‘success' I have no room to gloat, but I still can't help chuckling.
  • Speaking of Michigan, it looks like 2-3 after this week. Michigan State is REAL good. And, no, they didn't try to run it up last week - we didn't try to stop them.
  • Dear Coach Zook: GIVE THE BALL TO PIERRE THOMAS. PLEASE. I will keep harping on this until he gets 20+ carries in consecutive games.
  • The Tumble Inn is still one of my favorite Champaign watering holes. It's a fun time away from the hustle and bustle of campus.

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