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Iowa Football: Behind Enemy Lines With the Illinois Fighting Illini

The Hawkeyes are looking for their 6th straight win over Illinois as they prepare to send off 19 seniors.

Illinois v Iowa
The last time the Hawkeyes faced off against Illinois, they scored an unusual amount of points. Can they repeat that effort on Saturday?
Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

The Hawkeyes are fresh off a big home win over top-10 Minnesota last week. Despite no longer having a shot at a return trip to Indianapolis, Iowa’s remaining two games should leave plenty to play for with matchups against two border rivals. The first of those matchups comes on Saturday when the Illinois Fighting Illini come to Kinnick for senior day.

A season ago, Iowa defeated Illinois 63-0 in a game that can best be described as an outlier for the Hawkeyes. This year, the Fighting Illini come in riding a 4-game winnning streak and are bowl eligible for the first time since 2014. Can Lovie Smith get Illinois their first win in Iowa City since 1999 or will Iowa rattle off their 6th straight win?

To help us prepare for the matchup, we’ve got a behind the scenes look at Illinois from Matt O’Neall of The Champaign Room.

BHGP: The last time these two teams got together, it wasn’t pretty for Illinois. But this year’s Fighting Illini appear quite different from a year ago. What’s changed in Champaign?

TCR: It sure wasn’t. It was an embarrassing day to sit in the stands with a group of Hawkeye and Illini friends. Illini fans spent much of the offseason muttering “63-0 on senior day” when discussing the future of Lovie Smith and how important the 2019 season’s results would be. After six games it didn’t look good. But then the Wisconsin game happened. I still can’t fully describe how the Illini pulled that game off but they’ve been riding the momentum ever since. The key has been Lovie Smith’s identity finally showing up in this defense. Illinois leads the country in takeaways and defensive touchdowns. Turnovers are often a matter of luck, but after this recent stretch it really appears to be a part of this teams DNA. And on offense Brandon Peters has brought some stability and taken advantage of the oopportunities the defense has presented him. Since Lovie has taken over Illinois hasn’t been able to throw the ball at all until Peters took the reigns this year. He’s made Illinois two dimensional on offense and gives them a chance to come back when they fall behind.

BHGP: On paper, the Illinois offense looks pretty balanced averaging 183 passing yards per game and 150 rushing yards per game. How would Lovie Smith like to run this offense in a perfect world and how should we expect him to attack Iowa?

TCR: Ideally, Lovie Smith and OC Rod Smith want to run the ball. The offense was statistically better last season due to an explosive running game. That has taken a bit of a hit largely due to the change at quarterback from AJ Bush to Brandon Peters. Peters can move and will keep it a couple times a game to keep the defense honest, but he’s not much of a threat to consistently gash a defense. Illinois’ game plan in the first half will be to try and establish senior running backs Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown on the ground with a zone rushing attack. That will prove to be difficult against Iowa’s front seven. As the game moves along they will turn to Peters to keep them in the game, especially if they fall behind early.

BHGP: On the flip side, the Illinois defense is giving up nearly 26 points and more than 400 yards per game. How can this less than explosive Iowa offense attack the Fighting Illini defense?

TCR: If Iowa takes care of the ball they will should be able to have enough success against Illinois. If the defense isn’t taking the ball away, it isn’t very effective. Nebraska went for nearly 700 yards and Minnesota rushed for over 300 against the Illini. The Illini have been better against the run this season but not by much. They are still incredibly susceptible to chunk plays on the ground especially if the opposing offense is willing to get creative and throw multiple looks at the front seven. There’s plenty of room in the middle of the field to throw on Illinois’ linebackers. This defense has two goals: Take the ball away and limit explosive plays. The defense will let you have the yards. A combination of a read option attack, play action to the tight end and taking care of the ball is the recipe to rack up the yardage against the Illini.

BHGP: Illinois came into the season with a QB controversy, but it seems Brandon Peters has won that job and quickly found his favorite target in WR Josh Imatorbhebhe (who is a North Gwinnett grad, as is Iowa starting RB Tyler Goodson). Outside those two names, who’s the one guy Iowa fans should know about on the offensive side of the ball?

TCR: It’s the thunder and lightning running back duo of Dre Brown and Reggie Corbin. Brown has come on to have a terrific senior season after undergoing multiple ACL surgeries early in his career. He’s a tough runner who Illinois will try to get the ball to in clutch situations and late in the game. Reggie Corbin is the big play threat who will be at the top of Iowa’s scouting report. He had a breakout season a year ago and his numbers haven’t been the same due to the attention from opposing defenses and the emergence of Brown, but Iowa should always know where #2 is when he’s on the field.

BHGP: How about on the defensive side?

TCR: Dele Harding. The senior linebacker has been absolutely phenomenal this season. He’s leading the Big Ten in tackles at 12 per game and you will here his name called often on Saturday. Harding also has three interceptions, two of which have been returned for touchdown. He has been playing alongside Butkus Award semifinalist Jake Hansen all season until last week when Hansen didn’t travel with the team due to injury. I wouldn’t expect to see Hansen this weekend either so the Illini are going to be leaning on Harding’s playmaking even more than usual.

BHGP: Similarly, is there a matchup you feel good about favoring Illinois in this matchup?

TCR: Honestly..... not really. I think Iowa is a really tough matchup for Illinois due to their advantage in the trenches. Iowa’s defense has been stout all year, but I have reached the point where I like Josh Imatorbhebhe against anyone. That isn’t meant as a knock on anyone in Iowa’s secondary, but more of a testament to how dominant Imatorbhebhe has been this season. If Imatorbhebhe gets single man coverage, Peters will be targeting him, and he will probably feast.

BHGP: Which one has you most nervous (AJ Epenesa is a valid answer, but a second choice would be preferable)?

AJ Epenesa goes without saying. He’s terrifying. Outside of that I would say Illinois’ front four against the Iowa O-Line. Illinois has 22 sacks on the year but more than half of them are sidelined with injury (Oluwole Betiku and Jake Hansen). If neither of those guys can go than Illinois is really going to struggle to get pressure on the quarterback and get Iowa off schedule. Without much havoc up front I think Iowa is going to be content to pick up four yards a carry, take care of the ball, go on long drives and wear out this defense. And if that’s the theme of the game, it’s going to be a long day for Illinois.

BHGP: Alright, prediction time. This one opened at Iowa -12 with an over/under at 48. Do the Hawkeyes cover? Can Illinois pull off the upset to keep the hot streak going? What’s your prediction?

TCR: Fortunately and unfortunately the lines have moved a bit. Today I took Illinois at +15.5 and the under at 46.5. I like Iowa a lot more at -12 obviously, just because it doesn’t seem like Kirk Ferentz is trying to run away from too many teams this season. 30-0 vs Rutgers and 20-0 vs Northwestern (That under was the lock of the century) have me thinking Illinois can stay within shouting distance. So i think it depends on where you got the line, I have Iowa over Illinois 27-13. I just don’t see Illinois pulling out this style of game on the road. Illinois has been a second half team and mounted a couple of stunning comebacks this season, but I’m afraid Iowa is too conservative and disciplined of a team for the Illini to get away with falling behind multiple scores. Illinois is coming off a bye, and I’m sure Lovie has been reminding the team about 63-0 all week, so I won’t say it’s impossible, but I think the streak comes to an end and the boys head back to Champaign focused on beating Northwestern for a 7-5 regular season campaign.

And there you have it, the Hawkeyes have another Iowa game and in a close one. I’ll take it.

Thanks to Matt for taking the time. Be sure to head over to The Champaign Room for even more Illinois perspective on the matchup. They’ve got a good scouting report of the Hawkeyes and their keys to winning the game. You can also follow them on the Twitter machine @Champaign_Room.

Go Hawks!