Scouting Report: Iowa Still Tough Foe

The Fighting Illini travel to Iowa City Saturday to take on Iowa in another important Big Ten matchup. The Hawkeyes have struggled at times this year, but they will be a formidable opponent for the upstart Illini. They are a well-coached team with a large and boistrous fan base, and Illinois will need to play well to win.

It is hard to believe Iowa has now lost eight straight Big Ten games. The team that competed for Big Ten Championships in the recent past has faltered some recently, but forget the records. Illinois is no shoo-in at Kinnick Stadium.

An intense Illinois-Iowa rivalry has existed since the beginning of the Big Ten Conference, and it serves to inspire great efforts among its participants. There is no doubt Coach Kirk Ferentz will have his charges ready to pull an upset.

Iowa is using a number of younger players, even more so recently with injuries to several of its top performers. Youthfulness and inexperience can lead to unpredictability, as Illinois fans have discovered the first two seasons under Coach Ron Zook. But with six games now under their belts, Iowa may be on the verge of turning around their season.

The Hawkeyes boast a formidable defense that could be reinforced with the possible return of linebacker Matt Klingenborg and safety Devan Moylan from injuries. Klingenborg was a key factor in Iowa's 24-7 victory in Champaign last season, and his absence has hurt Iowa considerably.

Still, former Illini assistant coach Norm Parker continues to produce quality defenses year after year as Defensive Coordinator. The Hawkeyes are giving up an average of only 113 rushing yards a game, which ranks 30th in the nation. Since Illinois' ground game now ranks 6th nationally with a 261.2 yard average, it will be interesting to see whether Iowa can neutralize the powerful Illini rushing attack. If they can, they can win.

The Iowa defense is giving up an average of 16 points a game, which ranks 14th nationally, and the 304 total yards per game they allow is significantly less than Illinois' total offense. Weakside linebacker Mike Humpal (6'-3", 242) is their leading tackler with 9.2 tackles per game, and he has two interceptions. He will be even more effective when Klingenborg returns. Mitch King, a 6'-3", 257 pound defensive tackle, boasts ten tackles for loss so far this year, and freshman cornerback James Cleveland (6'-1", 190) leads the team with four interceptions.

Offensive Coordinator Mike Locksley has great respect for the Iowa defense.

"They're a team that's not going to let you beat them," describes Locksley. "They're very sound in how they align, their discipline, technique and fundamentals as evidenced by the way they played Wisconsin tight. What they're going to try to do is force us to execute at a high level and not give us any cheap plays. It's going to be a tough 60 minute game. We're going to have to execute at a high level and not turn the ball over, things we've preached all year long to not beat ourselves."

Iowa's offense has been hurt by the loss of two starting wideouts and their best tight end Tony Moeaki. Their replacements have ability, but they are mostly underclassmen. Quarterback Jake Christensen (6'-1", 215) is in his first year as a starter, and he has been limited at times by a young, rebuilt offensive line and his equally youthful receivers. But he has ability, and the former Illinois high school product will be highly motivated to play his best against the Illini.

Coach Ron Zook is impressed with Christensen.

"I think he was under a very good quarterback in (Drew) Tate last year, and this guy, you can see it. He's a competitor. He's a left-handed guy, which makes things a little different. He makes things happen. I think that they've changed their throwing game a little bit in terms of more quick stuff, but still you can see him improve as the season's progressed."

Fellow seniors Albert Young (5'-10", 209) and Damian Sims (5'-9", 197) again share the rushing load. Young is averaging 67 yards per game while Sims adds 47 yards, making them a decent one-two punch. Illinois will need to stop them to force Christensen to pass. Iowa's offensive line is inexperienced and will miss starting left tackle Dace Richardson, also out with injury, so it is vulnerable to an all-out pass rush. Their line gave up 20 sacks in their first five games. But if Iowa can balance run and pass, and if Christensen can complete short tosses before being sacked, their offense can put points on the board.

Iowa's special teams has been inconsistent this year. Former Chicago St. Rita kicker Ryan Donahue has been up and down, but his 45 yard average last week against Penn State shows his potential. Placekicking has also been unpredictable so far this year. Daniel Murray has hit on just half of his attempts.

A big factor in the game will be turnovers. Iowa has been quite successful creating turnovers, and Coach Zook is rightfully concerned.

"They have done a great job. I believe that they are No. 1 in the Big Ten in turnover margins. I think they are plus eight, and we're plus one, so that tells you that they've done a great job defensively. They are as good a defense that we've played. They just do the same thing. They line up and beat you up. We've done a very good job in playing great defense, but turnover margin is something that's very important."

As Coach Zook might say, strap on your pads and get ready for battle. It will be a hard-fought 60 minute game, and both teams are capable of winning.

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