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Iowa Football Opponent Preview: Illinois

Illinois v Iowa Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

This isn’t how Iowa’s season was supposed to go. While national observers who only began following the Hawkeyes once they became ranked might struggle to articulate what made this team successful in the first place, Iowa fans are mystified by how a potentially successful campaign fell apart so quickly and which of the many holes blown in the hull of the Hawkeyes’ ship is in most need of repair. Nate Stanley went from missing what Todd McShay called “middle school throws” against Penn State to throwing for well over 500 yards with zero interceptions in the subsequent two games, only for the running game, which appeared to have found an answer in the form of Mekhi Sargent, to completely fall off a cliff. Iowa’s secondary bounced back against Northwestern after being eviscerated by Purdue, only to see the Wildcats gouge the front seven for nearly 200 yards on the ground.

Fortunately, there are few opponents in the Big Ten better positioned to help a struggling team reverse its fortunes than the Fighting Illini. Despite being coached by defensive wizard and former Chicago Bears head man Lovie Smith, the Illini defense has been absolutely porous this season, surrendering more than 45 points on five occasions and more than 60 points twice. The Illini have a potent running game, but their anemic passing offense makes them one dimensional. Illinois is ranked 98th in the SRS, making them far and away the weakest FBS opponent the Hawkeyes will face this season. If ever there was a time for the Hawkeyes to correct their skid, this is it; now it’s up to them to take advantage of this opportunity.

Here are a few key factors to watch heading into this weekend’s game:

1. Can Iowa’s running game finally break out?

Not only have the Hawkeyes failed to produce a 100-yard rusher in a single contest this season, but the running game actually appears to have regressed over the past few weeks. Iowa followed up its 3.2 yards-per-carry performance against Purdue by averaging a putrid 2.9 yards-per-carry the following Saturday. While Iowa has largely chosen to ride the hot hand at running back instead of settling on a clear-cut leading man, they seem to have gotten away from this principle over the past few weeks; Toren Young, the only back to average 4.0+ yards-per-carry in either (let alone both) contests against Purdue or Northwestern received fewer carries than Mekhi Sargent and Ivory Kelly-Martin over that span.

This may just be the game for the Hawkeye run game to finally click. Illinois’ run defense ranks 123rd in rushing yards allowed per game (247.90), 125th in opponents’ yards-per-carry (6.03), and 109th in rushing touchdowns allowed (26). For comparison, Iowa’s defense has allowed 23 TOTAL touchdowns this season, meaning the Illini have surrendered more scores on the ground than the Hawkeyes have in general. Even a one-dimensional offense like Maryland with virtually no passing game to speak of was able to rush for 431 yards against the Illini only a week after seeing its ground game limited to 68 yards by the Hawkeyes.

Iowa’s ability to run the ball effectively against Illinois will help determine whether the Hawkeyes can control the flow of the game and prevent Nate Stanley from having to generate all of the offense on his own. The burden for this not only falls on the running backs, but the offensive line as well. While Iowa’s linemen score fairly well in a number of advanced statistics including success rate on power plays (79%) and stuff rate (16.7%), their struggles in recent weeks have been pronounced and must be rectified to give the running backs a chance to make plays and prevent things like this from happening:

Kirk Ferentz commented after the Northwestern loss that, “the biggest story of the game was we couldn’t run the ball effectively in the second half, and they did.” While blaming the anemic running game may not be as viscerally satisfying as criticizing the play calling, quarterback play, or the sudden tendency to surrender big plays on defense, improving in this area will do wonders for the Iowa offense as the Hawkeyes prepare for the final games of the 2018 season.

2. Was Iowa’s poor run defense against Northwestern an aberration or the start of a trend?

The second component to Kirk Ferentz’s diagnosis of Iowa’s loss to Northwestern was his team’s inability to stop the run, which was particularly surprising considering Iowa’s prior proficiency in that area. Northwestern, which came into the game ranked last in the Big Ten in rushing, totaled 184 yards on the ground with freshman running back Isaiah Bowser accounting for 165 yards. Iowa’s linebackers frequently found themselves out of position and failing to fill their gaps, and Bowser managed to break a few lackluster arm tackles from Hawkeye defenders en route to his career day.

There is, however, reason to suspect that Iowa’s struggles stopping the run against Northwestern were situational rather than structural. Iowa played the majority of the game with six men in the box in order to counter Northwestern’s traditionally pass-heavy offense, which gave Northwestern a significant advantage whenever they deployed seven blockers to help Bowser reach the second level of the defense untouched. Furthermore, Northwestern ran on multiple third-and-long situations in which Iowa was playing defensive ends Parker Hesse and Chauncey Gholson as interior linemen. While this formation makes the defensive line a particularly fearsome pass-rushing unit, the absence of true space-eating defensive tackles made it far easier for Northwestern to create holes in the running game.

While Iowa certainly will not need to structure its defense around stopping the very poor Illini passing game the way it did with Northwestern, the Hawkeyes will need to improve its run defense to contain the opposing ground attack. Illinois ranks 8th nationally in rushing offense and 5th in yards per carry. Reggie Corbin is one of the best running backs in the conference, and while AJ Bush has struggled as a passer this season, his skills as a runner are not to be underestimated. If Iowa can channel the defensive energy it used to stifle Maryland’s potent ground game, they should be able to hold the Illini offense in check. Additionally, Illinois has struggled with ball security this season with nine lost fumbles, so look for the Hawkeyes to try and force fumbles this week instead of surrendering them.

3. Can Nate Stanley rediscover the deep ball?

It would be inaccurate to say that Stanley was unwilling to throw the long ball against Northwestern, as he hit Ihmir Smith-Marsette on two deep shots and had a few more that fell incomplete. However, Stanley did appear far more content to quickly check the ball down to his running back in the flat or a receiver running an underneath route than is typically the case with the big-armed quarterback. Stanley’s internal clock appeared sped up at times, and his tendency to commit to the higher-percentage throw instead of waiting for his receivers to break open downfield resulted in him missing a few opportunities for a big gain that could have helped spark Iowa’s anemic offense.

The Hawkeyes should certainly have opportunities to throw the deep ball against Illinois. The Illini have surrendered a whopping 48 completions of 20 yards or more, the third highest number allowed in college football this season. While Iowa’s offensive line has struggled with run blocking at times of late, it has continued to excel in pass protection, surrendering only slightly above one sack-per-game. Stanley should have ample opportunities to throw deep against Illinois should he have the patience to take them, and this matchup will hopefully result in a reawakening of the vertical passing game that helped propel Iowa’s offense earlier in the season.

6-4 isn’t where the Hawkeyes wanted to be, but it’s still a lot better than 6-6, which is where the team is likely headed should they lose this game. A victory over the Illini should help the Hawkeyes regain their footing after three dispiriting losses and give them a sense of momentum heading into the Black Friday matchup against Nebraska.