Iowa will attempt to avoid a letdown in Champaign following their dramatic upset over Michigan in Kinnick Stadium. The Illini enter the contest at 3-7 overall and 2-5 within the league. Iowa rolls into the capital city of Illinois with a 6-4 overall record and 4-3 in the Big Ten.
Folks may be deceived by thinking this will be a decisive victory just because of last week's results against a top three team in the country that is undefeated. It is still important to remember that this team only defeated Rutgers by 7 and was shredded by Penn State in Happy Valley by 27. They're a bit unpredictable. What has been predictable has been their reluctance to put teams away. In conference play the Hawkeyes' most convincing victory was over Purdue by 14 in West Lafayette. The game wasn't as close as the score suggests but it shows the propensity of Iowa to let teams hang around.
On the other hand, the Illini haven't been in very many close games. They've only been in two matchups this season where the point differential was in the single digits. They lost to Purdue by three in overtime and defeated Michigan State by four at home. Their losses were brutal; North Carolina by 25, Western Michigan by 24, Nebraska by 15, Michigan by 33, Minnesota by 23, and Wisconsin by 45. They did beat Murray State by 49 and Rutgers by 17.
Wes Lunt returns to quarterback for the Illini so their offense could be rejuvenated some. Surprisingly, their offense has been worse than Iowa's and their struggles have been similar. They're very one-dimensional as they've been anemic through the air but do have some bright spots on the ground.
The defenses for each team are the bright spots. Iowa's put the clamps on Michigan a week ago and they have a star at every level in defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson, linebacker Josey Jewell, and cornerback Desmond King. Illinois has two standouts up front in linemen Carroll Phillips and Dawaune Smoot.
KEYS TO THE GAME
1) TAKE SHOTS DEEP - Illinois undoubtedly watched the film of Iowa beating Michigan. They saw a lot of run plays and short passes. Don't be surprised if Lovie Smith's safeties creep up a bit. I think Iowa took one shot deep against Michigan and it was intercepted. If you're Iowa, trust your offensive line and take a few shots deep down the field to keep the defensive backs honest. This helps the running game a ton. And you never know, maybe you connect on one or two.
2) GET OUT EARLY - You can't let a team like Illinois hang around. They have wins over Murray State, Rutgers, and Michigan State this season and they've gotten blown out in their last three losses. You can't give a struggling team confidence because it almost always comes back to bite you in the butt. The Hawkeyes need to strike first to let Illinois know there will be no hangover.
3) CONTROL LINE OF SCRIMMAGE - Illinois has a couple of talented pass rushers in Carroll Phillips and Dawaune Smoot. They like to get after the quarterback quite a bit so the Hawkeyes may need to keep a tight end in to help block if they become a problem. Control them and give Beathard time and you're golden if you're Iowa.
1) STOP THE RUN - Illinois' passing game has been just as dreadful as Iowa's. They're one-dimensional and the conditions are going to be cold and windy and won't help out the passing games of either team take a step forward this week. Iowa will need to defend Illinois like teams always defend them.
2) ESTABLISH THE RUNNING GAME - As I mentioned already, the conditions in Champaign are going to make it even more difficult on the passing game this week. The running game got rolling a bit against Michigan and they need to ride that wave. Wisconsin ran the ball over 40 times against the Illini and threw the ball less than 20 times a week ago. Iowa will look to duplicate that effort.
3) FIELD POSITION - With the passing games most likely being nullified this week and both offenses having struggled the way they have, field position likely decides this game. Each offense needs all the help they can get to score. The team that can win this battle likely wins the game. This is going to be an ugly game most likely. The leg of Ron Coluzzi and the legs of Desmond King will be critical. This is a special teams game in my mind. It should give Iowa the edge.
HAWK TO ROCK
Wadley is the obvious pick, but I'll go a different route and say Riley McCarron. Illinois' pass defense hasn't been stellar this season and I think Iowa finds their passing game this week. McCarron and Beathard have built somewhat of a relationship so I like Beathard to hit McCarron five times for 70 yards and a touchdown. On defense, I'll take Manny Rugamba. Illinois will likely try to avoid Desmond King as much as possible, but Rugamba is playing at a very high level. Last week against Michigan he had his best game of his young career and he continues it this week.
With the weather being what is expected and how Iowa throws the ball, there's no way I'm going out on a limb for any quarterback or receiver in this game. This game is on the offensive line. Croston is out. Boettger is questionable. This means Keegan Render definitely starts and Levi Paulsen could. Illinois' strength is all the tackles for loss they have this year because of Smoot and Phillips. Iowa has to mitigate that because they're only putting points on the board if they can run it. Sean Welsh and James Daniels need to pave some holes together.
Defensively, they need to play just as inspired against Illinois as they did against Michigan if at all possible. Illinois' passing game shouldn't be a threat and they'll try to mirror Iowa by running the ball early and often. The front seven are key in this, especially stars Jaleel Johnson and Josey Jewell. But I'll go off the reservation a bit and go with Desmond King. It won't be for his coverage skills as he's unlikely to be tested at all, but he's great in run support and they'll key on the Illini running game. Most of all I'll ride with King for his return skills. He's been great this year for the Hawkeyes with long returns and this will be the game that it could decide the outcome A special teams touchdown for King? I think he gets his first Saturday.
IOWA 35 ILLINOIS 18
IOWA 20 ILLINOIS 12