6 Questions with the HN Staff: Illinois

Each week, Jon Miller, Rob Howe, and Brian Finley sit down and talk about the game. Read what they had to say this week in this free preview update.

Who is your pick to click?

Jon: The Iowa running game; Damian Sims and Albert Young. It's hard to separate these two, as their carries have combined lately to amount to what some running backs get by themselves. For some reason, I think that Iowa will have a little more success on the ground this week. It's nothing more than a hunch, and I am certainly going against the grain here. I don't know that Illinois will come into this game selling out to stop the run. Penn State didn't, but their front seven is very good. Illinois has been very good against the run, too. OK, so it's just a hunch.

Brian: Mike Humpal. He's shown the ability to clean up after some mistakes by other inexperienced guys playing the back seven, and should continue to do so this week.

Rob: Man, I'm really hoping something clicks with the Hawkeyes. At this point, I can't in good conscience pick an offensive player. I hope somebody proves me wrong. I'll go with Mitch King. He's just having a super season besides being undersized, banged up and double teamed. Iowa's defensive tackles are playing very well this season.

Will the coaching staff start taking more chances, i.e. going for it on fourth and short, etc?

Jon: Yes. If they don't, it will almost seemed as though they are resigned to a fate that none of us wants to see. There have been a lot of redshirts burned this year, and at some point, these kids need to see more game reps outside of special teams. If the ball is on the Illinois 37 this week and it's 4th and 7 or so, I think the team goes for it, at home. And I think it's easier to try more things like that on offense when you are at home as opposed to being on the road at a place like Penn State that is among the loudest stadiums in all of college football.

Brian:Yes, but they won't suddenly become Dave Wanstache, going for it on 4th and 2 in a tie game, your own side of the field, 2 minutes left. I think we'll see a bit more risk-taking if something positive is happening for the team, as it was early in the game against Penn State, but nothing too outrageous.

Rob: I think they will. It's at the point of the season where you don't have a lot to lose. It would do wonders for this young offense if the coaches show some confidence in them by taking some risks. I don't think we'll see a bunch of double reverses, but the inexperienced players have had enough reps to where they could open it up. If the coaches have been holding anything back, it's time to roll it out on the Zooker.

If given the opportunity, will Zook and Co. try and run up the score on Iowa?

Jon: No. I wouldn't expect Coach Zook to leave his starters in late in the game and throw it on first down if the game is a three touchdown margin or more. There is no doubt that Iowa and their fans have been a thorn in Zook's side the last five or six years, at Florida and at Illinois. No one has forgotten his Nate Kaeding 'running' comments. So while Illinois could score late, that might just be because they are running the ball and break something against a defense that may be on the field a lot. The Big Ten is not the SEC. I don't know of any coaches in this league that would run up a score.

Brian:Yes. last time he was at Kinnick, Zook went out of his way to mention that Kinnick's atmosphere and Kinnick's fans had little to do with the whupping the Hawks put on them. If given the chance, he'll return the favor.

Rob: Yes. The Zooker has let his feelings about Iowa be known in the past and will be looking to make a statement if given the opportunity. A lot of Iowa fans and media have taken shots at this guy through the years, and he remembers them. I'm not sure he'd roll out a fake punt or field goal with the game in hand, but I can see him throwing it. Let's hope we don't have to witness that.

In which phase of the game, if any, will we see improvement this week?

Jon: Pass coverage, because Illinois is a bad passing team, so they might look better than they did last week against PSU. Is that a cop out?

Brian:Coverage in the flats. With a quarterback like Juice Williams who is unable to do much down the field, Iowa should work hard to take away the flats, keeping Mendenhall and company from breaking them long.

Rob: I felt like we saw Donahue improve last week, so there are some signs of an upswing. I have a feeling the offensive line is going to start to show improvement. This is the same group, for the most part, that now has half a season under its belt and probably is tired of getting kicked around. I'm not expecting to suddenly see domination like we did in 2002, but I'm expecting some positive steps forward in the next few weeks.

Illinois is certainly a rivalry game that Iowa fans want to win, but is it more important to keep beating Illinois on the recruiting front, as Illinois has historically been a state that Iowa has mined successfully?

Jon: I think it's very important for Iowa to win this game, aside from the fact that it would stop an ugly losing streak. Iowa still needs to be very active in Illinois, a state that a lot of Big Ten teams are active in. The more wins Illinois gets this year, and they look like a team that will be just as good next year, the higher the wall becomes around the borders of the state. Everyone recruits Chicago, so that place is almost a different territory unto itself. It has traditionally favored Notre Dame more than any other school, and Illinois is moving in on that turf right now, too, as the Irish struggle this year.

Brian: Definitely. Illinois is really jumping onto a lot of kids' radars at this point. Zook can recruit, noone has ever doubted that, but with his team having success, it will become even more difficult to win the battles. Zook may end up branching out into Minnesota and Indiana, two places that Iowa has been known to cherry-pick from time to time.

Rob: Iowa was losing many of those battles to Illinois before this year. The days of the Hawkeyes pulling out blue chippers like they did with the '05 class are over with the emergence of Illinois and Weiss at Notre Dame, I don't care how bad the Irish are this year. Iowa still can go into the Land of Lincoln and grab quality like it did in landing Matt Roth and Mike Jones. I guess what I'm saying is that I don't think a win or loss against Illinois will sway things a great deal.

 

The first six games of this year were going to be a challenge for Iowa, regardless of injuries and suspensions. The 'second six' looked like Iowa's chance to make up a lot of ground. Now, these games look much more daunting. How much of that is due to the 'back half' teams being better than you thought they were going to be?

Jon: Illinois was my 'sleeper' team in our preseason football magazine, so I am not wholly surprised at what they are doing. They had a better defense than people gave them credit for last year, and they have improved. Purdue's offensive production isn't surprising, and it has outpaced its struggles on defense. But when I picked Iowa to go 9-3 before the year began, one of the losses I penciled in was at Purdue. Michigan State and Northwestern are probably better than I thought they would be, and Minnesota is worse than I thought they would be. On the whole, the back half of this schedule is a little bit better than I thought. Then of course you factor Iowa's performance into the mix, and it looks a lot more challenging.

Brian: Purdue, Michigan State and Illinois have all looked much better than some anticipated them to be. Northwestern has their moments as well. Each team on the schedule, especially considering Iowa's stuggles, is going to be a tough game. I could see any game going either way, and there's really no way of predicting them at this point. It wouldn't surprise me either way, whether Iowa runs the table or loses out. It's just a strange year around the Big Ten.

Rob: Part of the reason I picked 8-4 was that Iowa played a tough early schedule and I worried about the confidence level with anticipated struggles. However, I never expected this rough of a start. Illinois is better than we thought, and I didn't expect a win at Purdue before the season. After that, I still feel like the last four games on the schedule are winnable and will be toss ups. Michigan State lost to Northwestern at home and the Wildcats lost to Duke. Iowa would expect Iowa to be favored in its last two against Minnesota and Western Michigan at home. I still think this team has a decent shot at 6-6 and a bowl.


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