Continuing with our series of previews of Iowa football’s 2017 opponents, it’s time to look at the Illinois Fighting Illini. Largely due to its proximity to several major metros, many people consider Illinois to be a sleeping giant. Now that they have a high-profile coach to recruit some of those areas, that giant may not be far from waking up.
Lovie Smith’s first season at the helm in Champaign was — as many expected — a struggle. The Illini logged wins over Murray State, Rutgers and Michigan State, lost a squeaker to Purdue and were blown out in the rest of their games. They were also without arguably their best offensive player — wide receiver Mikey Dudek — for the entire season due to injury.
Who did they lose?
First and foremost, they lose quarterback Wes Lunt after what seemed like a nine-year collegiate career. They also lost defensive tackles Rob Bain and Chucky Clements as well as starting center Joe Spencer.
Additionally, linebacker Hardy Nickerson and defensive end Dawuane Smoot were the Illini’s best defenders. They’ll both likely be on NFL rosters in 2017.
Who do they return?
Quarterbacks Chayce Crouch and Jeff George Jr. both took snaps last season and provide the Illini with some experience at the position. The X-factor is JUCO transfer Dwayne Lawson, a 6’6, 230-pound dual threat quarterback with a rocket arm. He’s still working on some classes right now, but once he gets on campus, there’s a good chance he becomes the starter rather quickly.
The Illini also return Malik Turner and Mikey Dudek at wide receiver — two of the better wideouts in the conference when healthy. Running back Reggie Corbin returns after putting up over 500 yards on the ground while splitting carries. He’ll be running behind a line that returns three starters and a fourth lineman who saw significant playing time.
On defense, Tre Watson and Julian Jones are a couple of capable linebackers, but the strength of the unit is the secondary, returning three starters. Stanley Green and Patrick Nelson make up a solid pair of safeties.
Why should Iowa be worried?
With or without Dwayne Lawson, the Illini passing game is going to present a problem for Iowa. If Dudek and Collins are both healthy, they are simply more talented than when the Hawkeyes are going to line up with in the secondary. The best way to slow that aerial attack will be to apply constant pressure up front, which requires tasking a front seven with limited depth.
Why should Iowa not be worried?
As is the case with many of the teams Iowa faces in 2017, the offensive line should be able to dominate the opposing defensive front. The D-line is the biggest question mark and concern for the Illini, and they’ll have a tough time slowing down Iowa’s run game. This could be another boring-yet-necessary offensive display in order to secure a win.
Key player for Illinois
Mikey Dudek — Season-ending injuries in back-to-back years have derailed what looked to be a promising career back in 2014. If Dudek returns to that form or anything close to it, he’ll change the dynamic of the Illini offense by adding a dependable mid-range target to complement Malik Turner as a deep threat.
Key player for Iowa
The Cornerbacks: Josh Jackson and Manny Rugamba — The two most experienced corners Iowa has will need to be up to the task of keeping up with a couple of very good receivers. If they spend the afternoon getting beat, Iowa will too. If they don’t, the Hawkeyes should be able to control the game.