Illini Playbook Breaks Down Iowa's Next Foe

When looking for the lowdown on Iowa's next opponent, it makes sense to solicit the help of a guy who knows it well. Illini Playbook beat writer Ryan Easterling brings us up close with the Illinois program.

Iowa heads on the road for a second week in a row. The Hawkeyes travel to Illinois for a match-up with a boarder opponent it hasn't met since 2008.

With the Illini being off Iowa's schedule for so long, fans may have lost track of what's going on in Champaign. Have no fear. has you covered.

To get the skinny on Illinois, HI called on Illini Playbook beat writer Ryan Easterling. He's been on the inside with Tim Beckman's team.

HI presented Ryan with five questions. He tackled them with ease:

1. What does Wes Lunt's return mean for the Illini offense and how do you expect Illinois to use its quarterbacks on Saturday?

Ryan Easterling: Wes Lunt has by far the best arm on the team. But he also is the least capable runner at the quarterback position. In Lunt's absence, Illinois has run more of a read option type of offense. Lunt can stretch the field considerably more than his counterparts, but with him in the game, the Illini offense becomes far more one-dimensional, especially with the inconsistency of the Illinois run game from the running backs. Lunt has been the defacto starter since early camp, but O'Toole has filled in relatively well from a leadership standpoint in his absence. Lunt will be the starter and should get a majority of the reps, but Illinois should still try to find ways to work guys like O'Toole and Bailey into the game, especially with some of Iowa's struggles this season against running quarterbacks.

2. With all of the talented running backs in the Big Ten this season, it seems like Josh Ferguson gets overlooked. What kind of back is he and how can he pressure an Iowa defense that's been susceptible to the run this year?

RE: The main reason Ferguson is overlooked is a lack of consistent productivity. Now he does have a couple of big factors working against him: A pass-heavy system and an offensive line that struggles to run block. But Ferguson has shown flashes here and there of big play ability and is just as much of a threat in the passing game as he is running the ball out of the backfield. Especially with some of the variation going on at the linebacker position for Iowa, Ferguson could find some favorable match-ups against second-string players and break a few plays here and there.

3. These teams haven't met since 2008. Do you sense that the Illini players view this as a rivalry? Why or why not?

RE: Nowadays the best rivalries are the ones where teams play each season. However, I don't think these teams like each other, and that usually makes for a better game. With so much time in between match-ups, none of the guys on either roster have faced off since high school, and some players have never even played each other. Rivalries are also much better when they are competitive, and it has been a while since Illinois and Iowa really engaged in a stretch of close games.

4. Kirk Ferentz said that Illinois blitzes more than most teams the Hawkeyes have seen on film. How do the Illini utilize the blitz and what are the pluses and minuses of what they do?

RE: Illinois has started blitzing more frequently to help generate more pressure for a defensive front that usually struggles to get push when they only rush three or four. By blitzing a linebacker or a safety, they try to direct a play to one side of the field or the other, however it has burned them several times when they miss tackles or over-pursue. Illinois has been without former high school teammates Teko Powell and Paul James III for a majority of the season and just recently lost Kenny Nelson and Carroll Phillips for the season. With such a patchwork defensive line tasked with some heavy reps, the Illini have had almost no choice but to blitz more as of late.

5. What is the pulse of fans on the direction of Illinois football in Year 3 of Tim Beckman?

RE: The fan base is still in a major "wait and see" mode. Sure, a lot of people think Beckman should be done at the end of the season and some think he should have been gone a long time ago. But at 4-5, the next three games could be the most critical of his career. Win two of those three against Iowa, Penn State, and Northwestern, and he earns himself another year at least in Champaign. Lose all three and he is likely out the door. Win one game and it gets tricky. But until he wins one, maybe two more games, the confidence in Tim Beckman still isn't there from much of the fan contingent.

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