Iowa returns to Kinnick Stadium on Saturday with an undefeated record intact. The Hawkeyes have won their first five but have no reason to look past their sixth opponent, and they know it. Illinois heads into Iowa City with a 4-1 record, though most of that has been done on inferior competition. It also comes after losing their head coach a week before the season was set to begin. Tim Beckman was fired by the Fighting Illini and now the reins are being held by interim head coach Bill Cubit, who was at Western Michigan when they defeated Iowa.
"Illinois got a lot better this year," Iowa senior defensive end Nate Meier said. "They're much better than last year. Their new coach is doing real well with them. They're a lot more talented team. They came back with a good win against Nebraska so hats off to them."
The Illini did get that signature win last week against the Huskers but they do have a glaring loss as well, falling to North Carolina 48-14. Do not let that score fool you. Two of the scores came on special teams with Ryan Switzer returning for the Tar Heels, and he set up another short field another time that lead to a touchdown. The wheels came off but the margin of victory in that game is far greater than the talent differential.
When speaking about the improvement about the Illini, a lot of it just has to do with experience and a healthy Wes Lunt at quarterback. He has a heck of an arm and he's stayed on the field this year. The problem has been the health around him. He's lost his leading wideout Mikey Dudek to a season-ending injury already, and outside of Geronimo Allison, his other receivers just aren't performing up to par. They are one of the worst programs in the country at dropping the ball. However, they always have a chance when Lunt is under center. Their backfield is potent, though they will miss Josh Ferguson against the Hawkeyes. Ke'Shawn Vaughn was a big-time recruit for them and is performing like it.
"It's night and day," noted offensive guard Jordan Walsh about the Illini's play this season. "They're playing really good football. They're flying around. They're a lot better. It's definitely not the same team as last year and you can tell when you turn on the film."
Defensively, Illinois returns 10 starters back from a year ago. Despite the 48 the Tar Heels were able to put on the Illini, that's where the most dramatic improvement on this team has taken place. That unit held Nebraska to just 13 points so their confidence is riding high.
Not only are they improved, not only do they have a ton of experience returning, but it's a very athletic group.
"They're a big, physical front," Walsh shared. "Their definsive line is pretty experienced. They're all returners from last year. Their linebackers are big, physical, they fly around, and they're also experienced as well. They're just faster than they were last year. It's all about the difference when you put on the tape from last year and compare it to this year. They swarm to the ball. Their defense is playing harder and faster. It looks like they had a real good offseason and it shows up on tape."
Another Hawkeye lineman had strong comments about Bill Cubit's defense.
"Defensively they're just more disciplined and fundamentally sound," Iowa center Austin Blythe pointed out. "They play hard. They have a lot of guys back. They have a lot of guys with experience and they know how to play the game."
Quarterback C.J. Beathard struggled with the passing game last week, throwing for just 77 yards against Wisconsin. He knows that Illinois poses another challenge for the Hawkeye aerial attack.
"They've gotten a lot better since last year," he stressed. "They're a lot more confident right now. The older guys on their defense help them out and make them a lot better. They're playing with a lot of momentum right now which is a lot better than last year. They're a real good defense."
The Illini and Hawkeyes face off inside Kinnick Stadium on Saturday at 11 a.m. CT on ESPN2.