West Lunt Returns
Lunt, who hasn't played significant snaps since the first of October, will return this Saturday against Iowa for senior day in Champaign. The transfer from Oklahoma State has given the Illini solid production at the QB spot since he stepped on campus. In his sophomore season back in 2014 he split duties with Reilly O'Toole and performed well, which led to the starting job as a junior. He threw for 2,761 yards, 14 touchdowns, and just six interceptions last season.
He's spent a majority of his senior season hobbled, but will return this Saturday. He gives the Illini an experienced decision maker under center as they look to defeat the Hawkeyes hoping to catch them in the middle of a possible emotional hangover.
Poor On Both Sides
The Illini just haven't been good in 2016. We knew coming in that the first couple of seasons under Lovie Smith might be a bit of an up hill battle. And that is exactly what this year has been. Illinois will enter this game at 3-7 overall and 2-5 on the conference. The are ranked 11th in total defense and 13th in total offense in the Big Ten, so you can see where the struggle has been.
Unfortunately for the Illini they just lack a lot of key playmakers. They have just one receiver that has over 200 yards receiving and their defense isn't good enough for the offense to struggle. They relied on Chayce Crouch once Lunt went out with injury, but Crouch soon got injured as well and they turned to redshirt freshman, Jeff George Jr.
They have just had a tough time gaining any confidence and continuity within the offense. Switching QB's three times won't help matters, either.
Defense Struggling in Losses
The Illini have given up 40 points in three of their last four ball games and they have lost all three of those games. They gave up 41 to Michigan, 40 to Minnesota, and 48 to Wisconsin. They do, however, have a win over Michigan State sandwiched in there. The bottom line when you look at the results is that the defense struggles mightily in losses. In fact, they've given up 30 or more points in all seven losses this season.
Now, this isn't to say the offense has performed well, because when they lose, they lose big. Especially recently.
For Iowa, this could be perfect. They haven't been firing on all cylinders on the offensive side of the football so getting a defense that struggles to keep teams off the board could help a lot with confidence. Especially heading into a contest with Nebraska the following week. This is not to say Iowa should overlook the Illini, though.
RB's Have Been Effective
Smith's crew has three running backs that have totaled over 300 yards this season. They all also have average over 5 yards per carry. Your main man, Kendrick Foster has carried the load the past few weeks for the Illini backfield. He's rushed for over 100 yards three times this season and went for 146 against the Spartans just a few weeks ago.
The Hawkeyes did a good job of stopping the run against Michigan this past weekend so, they should have confidence moving into this weekend's game. The Illini don't have a lot of weapons in the passing game so the Hawkeyes could stack the box a bit to prevent the run as well.
If a running back gets loose on Saturday, it is probably Foster. He also leads the team with 9 total touchdowns. Seven of them coming via the run.
Last Week's Run Defense
Wisconsin walloped Illinois last week. They dominated the line of scrimmage and virtually every other aspect of the game. The Hawkeyes struggled against Michigan to mount anything threw the air, but were effective on the ground. Good news for them, this Illini defense allowed two 100 yard rushers last week to the Badgers.
Iowa would be a candidate to do the exact same thing to Illinois this week. Both Wisconsin and Iowa play similar styles and devote most of their time to getting the run going.
Akrum Wadley was phenomenal last week against Michigan and if he can do that to Michigan's defense, who knows what he'll do to Illinois'. Look for Iowa to establish the run early and go to it often with both Wadley and LeShun Daniels this weekend.