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Iowa Football Schedule Look-Ahead: Illinois Fighting Illini

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Could this be a T-T-T-Trap game?

NCAA Football: Illinois at Purdue Sandra Dukes-USA TODAY Sports

It’s August, and that means we’re less than a month away from the beginning of the 2018 college football season. We’ve finished the majority of our opponent previews, and that means that we only have two left... one of them being the away game at Illinois.

History

Despite being down all-time in the series against the Fighting Illini (Illinois has 38 wins to Iowa’s 33 with two total ties), Kirk Ferentz has had their number since taking over as head coach 20-years ago. Going into the 2018 matchup, Ferentz will be looking to tie the five game winning streak the Hawkeyes had from 2003-2007 and his tenth total win in the series (9-3 overall). Basically, since Captain Kirk has put together his team, Iowa has dominated this series, including last years 45-16 win that looked troublesome but eventually became a drubbing thanks in part to a fake punt:

RIPIP Brandon Snyder.

Last Season

How can I put this as delicately as possible? Illinois was a steaming pile of college football dung last season. It’s really the only way to put it. They finished the season 2-10 including ten straight losses, averaged 15.4 points per game (which was 127th out of 130 teams), were 0-9 in Big Ten play and played three quarterbacks (one of which was sophomore Cam Thomas who finished as the teams third leading rusher with 233 yards; 33-yards shy of tying for second). In fact, the Illini only have five total wins during Lovie Smith’s first two years as the head coach. I’m not so sure he’ll be adding many more in 2018.

Now, with all of that said, a lot of those issues stemmed from Smith’s need to play 22 true freshman throughout the 2017 season. This was and still is a total rebuild of the program. With a full off season to build upon their invaluable experience last year, can those 22 players take a big step forward and launch Illinois out of the Big Ten basement?

‘Tis the question.

Offense

As a Chicago Bears fan, I really don’t enjoy shitting on Lovie Smith and his amazing beard:

I hold a very fond place in my heart for what he was able to do while he was at the helm of one of the NFL’s charter franchises. It’s still the most consistent run I’ve seen from the Bears in my lifetime. BUT, with that said, offense was never a strong suit for him in the NFL and it hasn’t been in college either.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean it will remain that way. It may be the Iowa fan in me, but returning sophomore starters Alex Palczewski, Vederian Lowe and Larry Boyd along with senior Nick Allegretti is a good place to start. Almost as important as a solidified line is the former Arizona offensive coordinator, Rod Smith. Can he bring a Rich Rodriguez flair to the Illini and turn Thomas (who failed to throw a touchdown pass last season) into a light, light version of Khalil Tate? Will he be able to coach up one of the other FOUR quarterbacks — including Virginia Tech graduate transfer A.J. Bush — that were brought into Champaign to compete with Thomas if the coaching staff’s opinion on the dual-threat QB sours?

We’ll soon see.

Oh, and Mike Dudek is back for what seems like his 8th season and has shown flashes of big playability before as a solid possession receiver that can help Thomas take that next step in the passing game.

Defense

Like the offense and the majority of this team, Lovie’s defense is extremely young. Unlike the offense, it was the strength of the team in 2017... and by strength, I mean it wasn’t a complete and unmitigated disaster.

But that doesn’t mean it was very great either.

Fortunately, there is depth in this unit and it could turn out some playmakers in guys like Bobby Roundtree, Bennett Williams, and Stanley Green just to name a few. If new Illini defensive line coach, Austin Clark, can bolster a deep defensive line to create a consistent pass rush and a stonewall against the run game, it could really help an intriguing pass defense that picked off nine passes in 2017.

Conclusion

The Illini should see some major improvement this year. Even if the talent is young, they are now experienced and have an entire off season of strength training under their belts. Rod Smith was as good of a hire that Lovie Smith has had and should be able to create an exciting offense that will surely look to spread the football around and, assuming he wins the job in camp, utilize Cam Thomas’s greatest weapon: his legs.

The defensive line, linebackers and secondary all have players that can take big steps forward in 2018 and should be able to become a cohesive unit and the linchpin of this team. Will Illinois win more than four or five games this season? It seems plausible for the first time in the Lovie Smith era.

My only concern with the Illini in terms of Iowa is that it could be somewhat of a trap game for the Hawkeyes having just played Northwestern and a showdown with Nebraska a week later. Let’s not forget the trouble the Illini gave the Hawkeyes in the first half of last years game.

With that said, I find it highly unlikely that Iowa loses this one. The Hawkeyes are simply better in all three phases of the game and should be able to win this one outright. But, I would be lying if I told you that I think it will be painless.