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Iowa Football Opponent Preview: Illinois Fighting Illini

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On the road to Illinois...

Iowa v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

The Hawkeyes did it… I mean… They actually did it!

Wow! Last Saturday was something that I, and I’m sure many of you, will never forget. With that said, it’s on to Illinois, as the Hawkeyes will look to improve their overall record to 7-4 on the season.

True Lovie?

So far this season, things haven’t exactly gone the way Illini fans were hoping they would when they announced the hiring of long-time NFL head coach Lovie Smith in early March, as the Illini currently sit with a 3-7 overall record and a 2-5 mark in Big Ten play.

With that said, the Illini have faced a fair share of adversity this season, as Smith was immediately tasked with replacing the production of numerous key players lost to graduation:safety Clayton Fejedelem, guard Ted Karras, defensive end Jihad Ward, wide receiver Geronimo Allison, cornerback V’Angelo Bentley and running back Josh Ferguson.

In addition, Smith and the Illini football team has also had to deal with injuries to key players at key positions, as star wide receiver and versatile weapon Mike Dudek was lost for the season before it even began with a torn ACL that he suffered in early April. Starting cornerback Caleb Day was also lost before the season kicked off, as he too suffered a torn ACL in mid-September, and starting quarterback Wes Lunt — a three-year starter — has missed the better part of 6 games this season with an undisclosed injury.

Although it’s true that the Illini haven’t looked all that impressive in 2016, the poor performance they’ve displayed week-to-week should be taken with a grain of salt, as I don’t believe this season is an indication of things to come for this program.

All that being said, the Illini haven’t looked terrible in all phases this season. In fact, there are actually areas on this squad where they actually really excel at when compared to other teams across the country.

On The Front Line

As I mentioned, there are areas on this team where the Illini are set and one of those areas in on the defensive, as they have three key players that are fully capable of leaving their mark on the game at any moment.

The three players I’m referring to are senior defensive tackle Chunky Clements and senior defensive ends Carroll Phillips and Dawuane Smoot. All three are players I would characterize as “explosive” athletes for their position.

Although Smoot and Clements came into the season on most people’s radar as top tier defensive lineman in college football, Phillips has been quite the revelation for the Illini as he’s racked up a total of 8.0 sacks and 17.0 tackles for loss this season, both of which are the best in the Big Ten. In comparison, last season, Phillips recorded only 2.0 sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss in 10 games.

Although both Clements’ tackle for loss numbers aren’t quite what they were last season, he’s made up for it by being an even more dominant pass rushing threat inside. Smoot is in a similar spot, although his sack numbers are down compared to last season, he’s still very much been a presence on the edge as he’s racked up 3.0 sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss in 2016.

Heading into this Saturday’s matchup against the Hawkeyes, you can expect all three of these guys to be prepared, as Clements and Smoot had their way with the Hawkeyes offensive line last season. Also, with starting right tackle Ike Boettger potentially being held out of this weekend’s contest and the offensive line already struggling as a whole, I imagine that all three will find at least some kind of success in this game. They’re individually too talented not to.

The Ballers of the Backfield

Another spot where the Illini have impressed this season, which should surprise absolutely no one, is the backfield.

Led by 5-9, 200-lb Kendrick Foster, the Illini have found themselves with a healthy supply of playmakers in the backfield this season, as freshman Reggie Corbin and sophomore Ke’Shawn Vaughn have proven to be more than capable to make plays with the ball in their hands.

As a collective, Foster, Corbin, and Vaughn have recorded 1554 total yards on only 252 touches this season, which averages out roughly to about 6.2 yards per touch. Those are impressive numbers, to say the least, and although neither of three truly complement one another in terms of style, the way Akrum Wadley and LeShun Daniels do, the depth and talent of the three has been the lone crutch of what has been a rather unimpressive and overall inconsistent offense this season.

As I mentioned, although all three backs get a fair amount of touches, the real leader of the backfield is Foster, and he’s been a very much welcomed revelation this season after only touching the ball a total of 15 times in 2015.

In a season where the Illini ended up losing their star do-it-all playmaker before the season even started in Mike Dudek, along came Foster to save the day! According to the Illinois football Twitter account, Foster is the only player in FBS this season who has recorded more than 600 yards rushing and more than 500 yards on kick returns:

With the ball in his hands, Foster has the ability to do damage and if the Illini are smart, they’ll find ways to put the ball in his hands quite a bit this Saturday.

Sleep Walking

In 2016, we’ve seen the ups (beating Michigan) and the downs (barely escaping Rutgers, losing to NDSU and jNW) with this Hawkeyes football team.

Heading into this weekend’s contest, I want to believe this team is experienced and mature enough to come out strong on the road and handle business with relative ease after last Saturday’s big game. However, I’ve seen too many times where a team is able to pull off a major upset and then proceeds to come out the following week looking as flat as can be. Let’s hope that’s not the case this Saturday.

Although the Illini have some talented pieces, there’s no valid reason as to why the Hawkeyes shouldn’t come into this game and handle their business, as they’re the more talented team in every phase of the game other than pass rushing.

With that acknowledged, if you thought this would be the week that the Hawkeyes opened up their downfield passing attack, think again, because the Illini upfront are fully capable of generating a pass rush without having to blitz. In addition, with starting right tackle Ike Boettger possibly out of this Saturday’s contest, it’s not looking like Beathard will have a whole lot of time to drop back and sling it downfield.