Q1: Just how good can quarterback Wes Lunt be? Is he one of the best in the Big Ten but is a bit limited in terms of weapons around him? What's worked for the offense and where are their deficiencies?
Lunt has a lot of similarities to Christian Hackenberg. Both are pocket passers who can make all the NFL throws but are limited by the weapons -- or lack thereof -- around them. Though, Lunt is much more accurate than his current completion percentage (58.1). Injuries to Scout.com Freshman All-American Mikey Dudek (torn ACL) and senior Justin Hardee (broken foot) have been costly. The current, healthy receiver group had just a combined 42 receptions entering this season -- and 41 belonged to seniorGeronimo Allison. Allison who leads the Big Ten in receptions and receiving yards, has been great. But the receiver group has a combined 32 drops. Cut those in half and Lunt would have a completion percentage of about 67 percent and several more touchdowns. His offensive line has done a great job of protecting him, though Iowa presents its biggest challenge.
This has been a dink-and-dunk offense (5.80 yards per pass attempt) so far this season because teams are playing deep safeties most of the time. The Illini have moved the ball well between the 20s but are one of the worst red-zone teams in the country. They are just more of a finesse team than a physically imposing team. Though, the run game has been better than anticipated. Freshman running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn looks every bit of a four-star prospect, though Josh Ferguson -- who is as dangerous in the passing game as the running game -- will likely miss Saturday's game with a shoulder injury.
Q2: The defense has been a bright spot for the Illini. Who are the standouts to pay attention to and where they can be exposed?
Illinois has had one of the worst front fours in the country the past two seasons and have allowed more than 280 rushing yards per game during that time and put barely any pressure on the quarterback. They finally have the talent and maturity to compete. None of the Illini defensive linemen are for-sure NFL players but all are prospects. Defensive end Jihad Ward and NT Rob Bain are solid run-stuffers and DT Chunky Clements and LEO Dawuane Smoot are the best pass rushers.
The linebackers and defensive backs have as much experience as any back seven in the Big Ten but they struggle with speed. There are a lot fewer missed assignments out of the group, though. Former NAIA player and walk-on Clayton Fejedelem is the best playmaker in the back seven. He's a big-hitter and great in run support.
Q3: Illinois has had a decent game so far but got beat pretty handily by North Carolina. What went wrong in that game against the Tar Heels and is it something that Iowa can duplicate at all?
The Illinois offense moved the ball in the first half but failed to score in the red zone, an ongoing issue this season. The special teams also gave up a few huge returns to All-American Ryan Switzer that turned the game. The defense struggled with a physical North Carolina offensive line that has a few NFL prospects, like Iowa. If I'm the Hawkeyes, I'm running right at tIllinois to see how they deal with physicality. The Illini aren't very deep up front, so Iowa can tire them out. Also, the Illini have struggled with dual-threat quarterbacks -- Mike Riley made Tommy Armstrong a pocket passer for some reason -- so Beathard should have some scrambling opportunities. The Illini have been pretty resilient the past calendar year (they've won four of six Big Ten games since winning just 1 of the previous 25), but they're still learning to win. They had that "Oh, no, not again" feeling against North Carolina. An early deficit at Kinnick could re-trigger those doubts.
Q4: Are there any differences in this Illinois team with Bill Cubit in charge instead of Tim Beckman?
To the Illini's credit - both the players and coaching staff -- Beckman's unprecedented firing a week before the season hasn't derailed its best chance at success since Beckman took over in 2012. Cubit has changed a few minor things within the team: how he runs practice, he doesn't award single-game gradeouts, he holds fewer inter-team competitions and prioritizes building confidence over anything else. The hard truth is that I don't think Beckman's absence has had much of a negative effect on this team. While he had a good record at Toledo, his replacement (his offensive coordinator Matt Campbell) might have been the major reason. To Beckman's credit, he left a pretty good staff, and Cubit's past head coaching experience has made this as smooth of a transition as possible. He's a capable interim, and if he wins seven or eight games, he might be the frontrunner for the permanent job.
Q5: Out of curiosity, from an outsider's point of view, what is the perception of Iowa right now?
Iowa is what Illinois aspires to be. Maybe they aren't always a favorite to get to the B1G title game, but it's not outside the realm of possibility. And the non-bowl season is a rarity. Understandably, when bowl after bowl becomes habit, a fan base wants more. So the so-called "Ferentz Fatigue" is understandable but there's a bit of a "be careful what you wish for, Iowa fans" feeling here in Champaign. It's all relative, but Illinois has been searching for its Hayden Fry/Kirk Ferentz since John Mackovic left in 1991. So, yeah, while Iowa might not be the top tier of Big Ten programs, Illinois would love to join them in that next tier.
BONUS: Any early guesses as who represents the East and West in the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis?
It's hard to pick a West team, but I've been on the Iowa train early. I just like that Beathard gives them an actual difference maker at quarterback, and the defense and run game are good as always. And I really like how their schedule sets up with crossovers against Maryland and Indiana. Next week's Northwestern game may determine the West, though I still would not count on Wisconsin. In the East, I'm sticking with Ohio State. While the quarterback position is shakier than expected, they simply have more talent than any team in the Big Ten. And Michigan State appears closer to Michigan than Ohio State at this point. Watch out for those Wolverines, but I won't doubt Urban Meyer until he finally loses a Big Ten regular season game (he's 25-0).
This is weird to say, but I think the Illinois defense keeps the Illini hanging around but Iowa will win the battle of the trenches and the Illini receivers haven't shown enough consistency for Lunt to carry this team to the road upset. Iowa 27, Illinois 20