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Individual Matchup to Watch: Iowa’s Offensive Line vs. Illinois’s Front Seven

What’s in the box?!?

NCAA Football: Penn State at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

News flash: Iowa’s offense has struggled running the ball. If we learned anything from last week’s matchup, it’s that Kirk Ferentz still has his fingerprints on the offense. That’s fine. Not every game can be a 44-41 Big 12-style shootout. So we move on.

How can Iowa begin to reassert itself on the offensive side of the ball? It’s going to start up front as the Hawkeyes hope to achieve a “balanced” offense. With Illinois on deck, people have said the Fighting Illini are the perfect antidote for offensive woes. So what is the makeup of their front seven? Or...

Illinois’s Front Seven

Per Ourlads, Illinois starts two true freshmen and two sophomores along the defensive line. Defensive end Bobby Roundtree has the most eye-popping stats and leads the team with 3 sacks. James Crawford is the most experienced player, as a fifth-year senior on the two-deeps but missed the first three games due to suspension. Against Nebraska, he had a strip-sack fumble against Tanner Lee.

With the youth comes a lack of size. The starting ends come in at 6’3” 245 and 6’3” 215 lbs (not a typo) in Roundtree and fellow freshman Isaiah Gay, respectively. When you shirk the developmental process, largely out of necessity, like Illinois is doing here, weird things are going to happen. The starting tackles are Jamal Milan and Tymir Oliver and both are a more normal size for the position, at 6’3” 300 and 6’4” 285, respectively. Along with the five mentioned, Illinois will play Kenyon Jackson and Tito Odenigbo.

At linebacker, Illinois leans on a trio of juniors in Del’Shawn Phillips, Tre Watson, and Julian Jones. They’ve combined for 84 tackles. Jones is the odd man out when Illinois switches to nickel, which figures to be very little against Iowa.

Iowa’s OL

After five games, we’re well acquainted with Iowa’s lineman. Though injuries caused some rejiggering: Boone Myers continues to split time with Ross Reynolds at left guard after an injury forced him out of the left tackle spot (now occupied by Alaric Jackson) while Ike Boettger’s season ending injury forced Sean Welsh outside to right tackle with Keegan Render manning right guard. James Daniels appears 100% after sitting out the first game of the season.

As Iowa is already down two lineman, it mimics the 2012 season insomuch as they are without the players they expected to lean on throughout the season. Thankfully this ragtag bunch has shown to be pretty good at pass protection. They’ve given up 8 sacks through 5 games whereas Iowa yielded 14 at this point in last season. Their faults lie in run blocking, where the Hawkeyes are averaging a measly 3.4 yards per carry.


Thankfully, there is good news on the horizon. Illinois gives up 4.2 yards per carry, which rates highest amongst Iowa’s six opponents so far. Despite the speed, Illinois has struggled most against the run versus spread teams. USF gashed them for 5.7 yards per carry. Nebraska also racked up 4.3 yards per carry against the Illini. Diving into the play-by-play, 72 out of the Huskers’ 165 rushing yards came in their final possession of the game. They averaged 6.5 yards per carry on the final drive, largely out of the shotgun, while they only yielded 3.4 during the rest of the game.

Oh hey, where did I last see Iowa run out of a spread-like formation?

While I would be surprised to see Iowa lean on this type of run against Illinois, it’s something the staff shouldn’t be afraid to make Illinois defend.

What is increasingly apparent is every Iowa opponent is becoming less and less afraid about selling out the run. I noticed it first against North Dakota State last season, as their defense played downhill. I expect Illinois, despite their size disadvantage to mimic this approach. Quotes like this from Iowa opponents are proliferating: “Iowa’s going to be Iowa. They’re going to run what they run.”

Still, the size and experience matchup in the trenches should prove to be too much. Iowa’s big uglies should be able to move the Illini defensive line from Point A to Point B against its will. Yet, if Iowa cannot get to the second level - or if the Illini’s second level forces themselves upon Iowa - the Homecoming bout could prove closer than expected.