Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz and his Hawkeyes have surprised prognosticators by starting the season 5-3. Their three losses were by one point to Pitt, five to Northwestern, and three to Michigan State. Gaining confidence with two straight outstanding performances, they had a bye week this last week to heal their bruises and prepare for Illinois.
Iowa features one of the nation's best running backs and a powerhouse defensive unit that is also ranked high nationally. Shonn Greene (5'-11", 235) has returned from a one year junior college exile to ground out 1154 yards and 10 touchdowns. Averaging 6.5 yards per carry, Greene is one of only two FBS running backs to rush for 100 or more yards in 8 contests this season.
Middle linebacker Brit Miller knows the Illini will have their hands full with Greene.
"The dude's awesome. I remember Shonn Green when he was a freshman. He's a baller. He's one of the guys I like to play against because he runs the ball hard. He's always aware. I've seen plays where he just made things happen. I think that's just his experience showing up.
"I think he's the premier running back in the Big Ten, and we have a great challenge in trying to stop him this week. I've got a lot of respect for the guy because of the way he plays the game."
Ricky Stanzi (6'-4", 215) took over for last year's starter Jake Christensen after two games and sparked the offense. He has completed 88 of 137 passes for 8 touchdowns and just 4 interceptions. He is completing an impressive 63.8% of his passes, and his passing efficiency ranks third in the Big Ten.
Senior wide receiver Andy Brodell (6'-3", 200) has corralled 24 passes for 304 yards and 3 touchdowns so far. He is also fourth in the Big Ten in punt returns, and he is one of only three players nationwide to return a punt for a touchdown.
Derrell Johnson-Koulianos (6'-1", 205) is the other starting receiver. He has registered 24 receptions for 304 and a TD while also handling kickoff returns. Trey Stross (6'-3", 200) and Colin Sandeman (6'-1", 200) are prominent on the outside as backups. Tight end Brandon Myers (6'-4", 250) is the third leading receiver with 23 catches for 291 yards and 3 touchdowns. Allen Reisner (6'-3", 235) also sees time at tight end.
Ferentz is known for producing quality offensive linemen, and he has a good group to work with this year as well. Illinoisans Brian Bulaga (6'-6", 290) and Kyle Calloway (6'-7", 305) man the tackle spots. Left guard will be manned either by Julian Vandervelde (6'-3", 295) or Rafael Eubanks (6'-3", 285), the center and co-captain is Rob Bruggeman (6'-3", 287), and the right guard is Andy Kuempel (6'-7", 295).
Former Illinois assistant coach Norm Parker is the long-time architect of the Hawkeye defense, and he likes nothing better than beating the Illini. His teams are always sound fundamentally. They are effective at stopping the run and then forcing turnovers in the passing game.
His defense has already accumulated 14 interceptions on the year, 11 more than Illinois. They are 5th in the nation in scoring defense (11.5) and pass efficiency defense (98.0), 8th in red zone defense, 16th in fewest yards penalized, 22nd in rushing defense and 20th in total defense. They have at least one takeaway in 28 of their last 30 games.
The strength of their defense is their senior defensive tackle co-captains Matt Kroul (6'-3", 277) and Mitch King (6'-3", 264). They have tremendous motors and are relentless in freeing their linebackers to make tackles. Adrian Clayborn (6'-3", 282) or Chad Geary (6'-3", 261) fill one defensive end spot, and Christian Ballard (6'-4", 270) mans the other.
Pat Angerer (6'-1", 230) is the beneficiary of his d-line's good work as he leads the Big Ten in tackles per game. He also has 4 interceptions. Strongside linebacker A. J. Edds (6'-4", 244) is a blossoming star. Jeremiha Hunter (6'-2", 222) joins him on the weakside.
Senior Bradley Fletcher (6'-2", 200) provides leadership at one cornerback spot, and sophomore Amari Spievey (6'-0", 190) mans the other. Redshirt freshman Tyler Sash (6'-1", 210) is at strong safety, with sophomore Brett Greenwood (6'-0", 200) at free safety. Spievey and Greenwood each have two interceptions on the year.
Iowa is solid in the kicking game. Chicago St. Rita grad Ryan Donohue is a talented punter who has at least one punt over 50 yards in five of the last six games. He is also good at directional kicks, downing 13 inside the 20 yard line. Freshman Trent Mossbrucker is practically perfect on field goals (10 of 11) and is perfect on 20 extra points. His longest field goal is 39 yards.
The Iowa offense averages an effective 385.4 yards per game, while the Iowa defense gives up just 297.8 yards per game. More to the point, Iowa has allowed Illinois only 2 touchdowns combined in their last three meetings.
With 15 Illinoisans on their roster, Iowa will be eager to maintain that dominance Saturday.