Last week's trip to Minnesota did not really go as planned, and now Iowa must stop the freefall as it takes on the Illinois Fighting Illini. But who is this "Illinois," really? Where is it? Does anybody really know? Here's what we can tell you.
Name: University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Fighting Illini
Location: Parts Unknown
Record: 4-5 (1-4)
Last game: 55-14 L at Ohio State
Last game vs. Iowa: Illinois 27, Iowa 24, 2008
Ranking: Severely unranked
Passing: West Lunt: 127-191, 1,569 yards, 13 TDs, 3 INTs (5 games)
Rushing: Josh Ferguson: 110 rushes, 552 yards, 6 TDs
Receiving: Mike Dudek: 45 catches, 707 yards, 3 TD
Tackles: Mason Monheim, 83 tackles
Tackles For Loss: Earnest Wilson III, 8.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks
Interceptions: Four tied with 1 INT
Writing "Whatever." here and leaving it at that would not have been my most professional move in my BHGP tenure, but do please realize that I stared at it for a solid 2 or 3 minutes. Such is the ennui present right now.
Wes Lunt will be back from his broken leg this weekend; Tim Beckman has declared him the starter. That is not great news for Iowa, as Lunt has absolutely lit up everyone he's faced. It's just that Lunt hasn't really faced much of anyone this year; the only Big Ten opponent that Lunt has been healthy for was Purdue, and while his numbers were more than adequate in that game (27-39, 332 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INT)... it's Purdue, c'mon.
Lunt's primary target is Mike Dudek, who has been nothing short of a dynamo in that offense, even as a true freshman; Dudek is 38th nationally and third in the Big Ten with 78.6 yards receiving per game. That's nearly twice what Tevaun Smith gets per game. No, I'm not bitter. Yes I am.
Josh Ferguson isn't much of a workhorse at tailback, but he'll probably see something along the lines of a dozen carries for about 50 yards and maybe a short score. He's a pretty decent pass-catcher out of the backfield too, so Iowa's got to at least respect that part of the passing game.
The Illinois line is suspect, though, and Iowa needs to be able to exploit this—we've seen the Hawkeyes tee off on better units than the Illini's front five.
Illinois' defense is wretched. It has four interceptions and 11 total takeaways on the year, in nine whole games. That's good enough for a -8 turnover margin, and uh... that, uh... that ain't good.
Opponents are rushing for a robust 5.3 yards per carry on Illinois, which means Mark Weisman really, really ought to be feasting on Illinois' soft front. Or Akrum Wadley. Or Jonathan Parker. Or you, if you wear an Iowa shirsey to Memorial Stadium on Saturday. The holes should be there, is what we're saying. In the running game, not in your shirsey. Man, we're getting off track.
If Iowa sustains some drives on Saturday, they should end plenty well; Illinois has given up points on 35 of 37 red zone trips, including a 70% touchdown rate (by comparison, the Illini offense has only scored any points at all on 69% of its own red zone opportunities).
There's virtually nothing the Illinois defense does well. Name a factor, and Illinois suffers there. Third-down defense is 85th-best in the nation at 42%—and that's right around Iowa's rate on offense, so if Iowa's offense sputters that's a failure on the team's part, and not a "well what are you gonna do, it's Illinois" situation. With the Illini struggling to get off the field, opponents average over 33 minutes of possession per game, so this is basically Kirk Ferentz bait.
We've seen Iowa come out of puzzling losses on fire, and we've seen Iowa let those clunkers beat them twice, and we've seen just about everything inbetween. This is what happens when you've got a decent head coach who allows more than his share of bad losses and sticks around for 15+ years: lots of opportunities to bounce back from adversity.
Iowa's got the edge on physicality here, and that's generally a good omen. But damn it if we're not worried about looking up in the third quarter and it's 10-6 Illini and Jake Rudock is flinging passes five yards short of the line to gain.
But we're going to put those fears on hold—let the team make the mistakes (or even better, not make them) before you react to them, right? And come on: Kirk Ferentz isn't going to let himself get outcoached by Tim Beckman. That's like losing at Connect Four to a frog.