Alright, alright. I know it’s been really fun to bask in the misery that has followed Iowa’s back-to-back losses to start out conference play, but it’s time to move on. There’s another football game this weekend with a chance to get back in the win column, and it’s against the Fighting Illini for homecoming. The Fighting Illini haven’t been great this season, and maybe not good, and maybe not even average, and maybe just straight up bad - they’re 2-2, and their wins came in a nail biter against Ball State and a bad football game against Western Kentucky.
But I’m sure there’s something to know about Illinois, right? We talked to Brandon Birkhead, a staff writer over at SB Nation’s Illinois blog, The Champaign Room. He answered questions on Lovie Smith, running back Mike Epstein, and Illinois’ quarterback switch this week, among other things.
Without further ado, let’s get to it.
Max Brekke: It's Year 2 of the Lovie Smith experiment, and well, things don't seem to be going all that well. Do Illini fans believe that Lovie has things headed in the right direction, or are things starting to get a bit restless in Champaign?
Brandon Birkhead: Some are starting to get frustrated, but most understand how broken the program was when Lovie Smith took over. Also because of the awful decision to hire Bill Cubit as Head Coach only to fire him months later to hire Lovie, really makes this year one for Lovie Smith. He wasn't able to recruit his own guys that first year and had to hold on to as many Cubit/Beckman recruits as he could (which he did a good job at), and training camp had to be pushed back.
So if you consider this as year one, and also remember that Illinois has the youngest team in the country, not much could have been expected. Some of the freshman have shown promise (Mike Epstein, Isaiah Gay, Louis Dorsey, Bennett Williams, and others). Also in some ways the team has gotten better, but is just far too under talented at key posistion just yet.
That being said you would like to see more progress in recruiting, and with the offense. It's yet to be seen if the Lovie Smith era is going to pay off, but the program is on a much better path than it was under Tim Beckman/Bill Cubit.
Max: Illinois will be making a quarterback change this week, going from Chayce Crouch to Jeff George Jr. What does George bring to the table that Crouch did not, and will it be enough to drastically improve the Illini offense?
Brandon: Jeff George the Younger can throw the ball much better than Chayce Crouch can. He can, if given time, stand in the pocket and deliver the ball down the field with ok accuracy.
On the other hand, he cannot run the ball at all. Illinois wants to build an identity around running the football, and in college football your QB needs to be some sort of running threat to succeed at that. George the Younger also has some issues with turnovers that Crouch does not.
It's possible that our passing attack will be much better off, but our rushing attack can really suffer. The offense could improve a bit, but until Illinois fixes the absolutely broken offensive line, it won't really matter who is under center. If your offensive line can't block the defense nothing will work.
Max: Despite the Illini being last in the conference in rushing, Mike Epstein is rushing for a healthy 5.3 YPC this season. What makes the freshman a dangerous runner and will Illinois look for him to carry the load against an experienced front seven for the Hawkeyes?
Brandon: Epstein is a very fast and aggressive runner. He is a one cut north and south style of running back. He sees the hole and runs at it hard. Nothing too fancy, just run the ball down the field. You would think Illinois would make him the focal point of the offense moving forward, but he only was given 10 carries against Nebraska last week. Expect that to go up against the Hawkeyes, but I don't expect he will see anything like a 25 touch game.
Max: Iowa has struggled running the football this season and hasn't always been able to stretch the field vertically through the air - which way do you figure the Hawkeyes would have the most success against this Illinois defense?
Brandon: Half of the Illinois starters on defense are true freshman. I'll say that again, half the starters on the Illinois defense are true freshman. If Iowa can avoid shooting themselves in the foot, and run their style of offense at a basic rate of effectiveness, they will find some success as the Illini defenders make some freshman mistakes.
The Illinois defensive line is incredibly young and could be a target for Iowa on Saturday.
Max: Finish this sentence: Illinois will win on Saturday if...
Brandon: They won't win, unless the turnover fairy blesses the Illini in a way no team has been blessed before. Then they may have a shot.
Max: Alright, prediction time - who ya got?
Brandon: Illinois will find a bit of spark early with the new QB on offense, but realizes soon after that the issues on offense go much deeper than just QB. The offense is unable to move the ball past the 50 consistently, and the young talented Illinois defense tires out as Iowa dominates time of possession. Iowa wins 27-6.
Thanks to Brandon for his time and insight! Of course, I hope the Hawkeyes throw nine hundred points on your team. For more on all things Illinois, check out The Champaign Room and find them on Twitter at @Champaign_Room. Go Hawks.