On Offense: Quarterback vs. Secondary
Might come as a surprise to you but Illinois has a pretty decent pass defense. They rank 29th in the nation, only allowing 177 yards per game, 19th in pass efficiency defense and most impressively they're 1st in the conference with seven passes intercepted with six of those interceptions coming from the secondary. Those are probably the type of statistics that C.J. Beathard doesn't want to hear considering he's coming off one of, if not the worst game of his career. Add to the fact that Tevaun Smith is going to be missing an extended period of time and it might be rough sledding throwing the ball come Saturday. Then again...Iowa could just run it down the Fighting Illini's throats, but I digress. Let's talk secondary.
The Fighting Illini start two seniors with plenty of experience at cornerback: V'Angelo Bentley and Eaton Spence. Bentley was honorable mention All-Big Ten last season and recorded 7.5 tackles for loss, which is darn impressive for a cornerback. This season he has yet to notch an interception but has broken up three passes and recorded one tackle for loss. Opposite Bentley is Spence, who has started 30 straight games and picked off two balls this year.
At strong safety is the Illini leader in interceptions, Taylor Barton. He was honorable mention All-Big Ten last season and has already accumulated three picks, three pass breakups and 2.5 tackles for loss.
Finally, at free safety is Mr. Feel Good, Clayton Fejedelem. He originally started out playing NAIA football at St. Xavier University in Chicago before transferring to Illinois. He played in 13 games last season and has started every game this season. He's recorded three pass breakups and his sole interception game against Nebraska (LOL).
This is one of the most, if not the most veteran unit that Beathard has faced all season. Three seniors, one junior and seven interceptions. Admittedly, Illinois is horriawful at getting sacks, ranking 112th in the nation and only averaging a sack per game. So he'll have his time. He'll just need to be calm and make the appropriate throws.
Then again, if all else fails Iowa can just run it down their throats.
On Defense: Secondary vs. Wide Receiver
With wide receiver Mike Dudek ruled out for a sixth straight game and running back Josh Ferguson listed as doubtful, Illinois will have to rely on quarterback Wes Lunt for majority of their offense. Lunt is having a solid season thus far: 1,107 yards, 58% completion percentage, 8 TDs and 2 INTs. Normally, that would mean that the key unit would be the defensive line, as they would be responsible for getting pressure on him but Lunt rarely gets sacked. Illinois is 17th in the nation in sacks allowed with five. Lunt himself has only been sacked four times. That means it's up to the secondary to slow down a wide receiving core that has four players with 10 receptions or more.
Lunt's #1 wide receiver and arguably the most productive player on the field is Geronimo Allison (awesome name, btw). On the year, he has 32 receptions, 453 yards, and two touchdowns. You might recognize Allison as the guy who did this:
LOL. At 6'4, 200lbs he's tall, but not terribly strong and most of his yardage comes off of back shoulder throws where he can use his length to come down the ball.
Opposite Allison is 6'3, 205lb sophomore Malik Turner. His best game came against Nebraska, where he hauled in four receptions for 70 yards and had a long play of 50 yards. Other than that he's been relatively unproductive.
The Fighting Illini are seeing solid production from their third starting wide receiver, Marchie Murdock (also an awesome name) and his backup, Desmond Cain. Murdock is #2 in receptions with 20 and has touchdowns in three games, including against Nebraska. Cain is scoreless on the season but is third on the team with 19 receptions. As expected, neither guy is particularly large, but Lunt looks for them in short yardage situations.
Unless you've been living under a rock the past couple of months, you'd know that offensive coordinator Bill Cubit is now the Illini head coach. Beckman brought Cubit in to install a spread offense and aside from a disaster against North Carolina, the results have been impressive. While Lunt will look to spread the ball around as much as possible, it's clear that Allison is his primary guy and Iowa need a typical performance from Desmond King to hold him in check. Considering that Iowa doesn't have King follow the #1 wide receiver, Mabin will need to do his part and Iowa's nickels/dimes/safeties will need to handle the rest.