Iowa vs. Illinois: 3 keys for the Hawkeyes, and then a prediction
Can anyone name the last time Illinois football was good? Or even relevant? Illinois hasn’t finished above .500 since 2011 under Ron Zook. The Illini haven’t finished a season ranked since going 9-4 in 2007.
More importantly for Iowa fans, Illinois has lost 8 straight and 13 of 14 against the Hawkeyes.
But Iowa won’t be facing any of those past Illini squads Saturday when it travels to Champaign for a game under the lights at Memorial Stadium.
Right now, it’s hard not to buy into what 2nd-year Illinois coach Bret Bielema is selling.
Fans are chugging down the Illini Orange Kool-Aid and are buying their Illini stock now before it goes through the roof. Outside of a heartbreaking loss to Indiana in Week 1, Illinois (4-1, 1-1 B1G) has been one of the B1G’s most consistent teams.
Iowa (3-2, 1-1) has been consistent in terms of letting its fans down with anemic offense. At least the defense, led by Jack Campbell, keeps fans engrossed and encouraged.
Here are 3 keys for Iowa against 3.5-point favorite Illinois:
Brace for the Chase Brown Show
All eyes are usually on a quarterback in terms of being the x-factor for offensive success. And while Tommy DeVito has been a capable starter since transferring over from Syracuse, the Illinois offense runs through Brown.
No, literally, it runs through Brown.
After posting his first 1,000-yard season in 2021, Brown is on pace to shatter the benchmark by midseason this fall. So far in 5 games, Brown has totaled an FBS-leading 733 rushing yards on 120 attempts. In all 5 games, the Canada native has rushed for at least 100 yards and averaged over 5 yards per carry.
This on paper shouldn’t be a concern of Iowa, which currently ranks 13th nationally in run defense. Then again, tell that to Wisconsin, a team known for its stellar defensive play under coordinator Jim Leonhard. Last week, Brown blazed through the Badgers’ defense for 129 yards in a 34-10 win.
Forcing DeVito to pass might be critical for Iowa. Last week against the Badgers, the senior threw for a season-low 167 yards. And while he completed a season-high 75% of his passes, most were on dump screens and short routes to move the chains.
Brown hasn’t slowed down this season regardless of the competition. Will that change Saturday?
Defense, defense, and more defense
College football fans should remember the name Ryan Walters entering the offseason. With how the Illini’s defense has looked this season, it’s hard to imagine other programs not being interested in Illinois’ defensive coordinator for their head coaching vacancies.
One year after finishing middle-tier among B1G defenses, Walters has made the Illini’s unit a national sensation. If Brown is the conference’s biggest surprise, Illinois’ defense certainly deserves an honorable mention nod. So far, the Illini rank 3rd in total defense (229.2 ypg) and 1st in scoring defense (8.4 ppg).
Close behind? Iowa. The Hawkeyes rank 7th in total defense (254.4 ypg) and 3rd in scoring defense (10.0 ppg). Last week, Iowa held No. 4 Michigan’s powerful offense to season-lows in passing yards (155) and points (27).
Walters’ defense has faced off against lesser competition to begin the year, going up against teams such as Virginia and Chattanooga. After last week’s showcase in Madison, fans best is paying close attention. Wisconsin running back Braelon Allen might be the conference’s best runner in terms of skills, and Illinois held him to 2 rushing yards. Backup Chez Mellusi couldn’t get the ball rolling on the ground either, totaling just 16 yards off 7 attempts.
Why is that such a big deal? Well, Iowa’s rushing attack might be the one thing keeping its offense worth watching. But the Illini have dominated the trenches, holding opponents to 2.6 yards per carry.
Can Iowa counter?
Offense wins games, defense wins championships. On Saturday, defense will dictate the game’s outcome without question.
Iowa should be feeling high despite dropping a game last week to Michigan. Holding one of the more potent offenses in the sport to 27 points isn’t anything to boast over, but it’s also something that gives Kirk Ferentz something to hold onto entering a pivotal week.
If the Hawkeyes can take away Brown’s legs, they might at least make the Illini less comfortable. DeVito is averaging 224.2 yards per game. He’s only thrown a pair of interceptions, but both came against Power 5 defenses.
Iowa, meanwhile, has been efficient in keeping teams out of the end zone through the air. So far, the Hawkeyes have allowed only 3 touchdowns in coverage and are holding opponents to 161.6 passing yards per game.
As bad as Iowa’s offense has been, its defense has kept hope alive. Can the Hawkeyes mask their flaws again against Illinois?
And the prediction …
The reality is that Iowa’s offense is going to be its downfall. Sure, Spencer Petras wasn’t the reason the Hawkeyes lost at home against the Wolverines, but he isn’t the reason they’re winning, either.
When playing Blackjack, most will keep playing until their luck runs cold. Right now, Illinois is as hot as the center of the sun defensively. Its offense can do just enough to keep the program ahead of teams that can’t score.
Iowa can’t score. Its offense is averaging 11 points per game. Even the best defenses need more help than that. And while Brown might rush for under 100 yards, Iowa’s passing attack might not put up 100 yards to counter.
The Illini stay hot for another week and improve to 5-1. It won’t be pretty. Iowa fans might want to turn off the TV and find something better to do with their Saturday night.
Illinois 13, Iowa 3