The Illinois Fighting Illini have had an impressive turnaround this season. After allowing 39 points per game en route to a 4-8 record, they’ve improved to 26 points allowed per game and have already locked up a bowl berth at 6-4.
The main driver of their defense? Turnovers.
The Illini have jumped from 20 turnovers through 12 games last year (five fumble recoveries on nine forced fumbles and 15 interceptions) to 26 turnovers. Part of it is luck - they’ve recovered 16 of 17 forced fumbles which - but the skill of forcing those fumbles has them ranked first in the country. They’ve added 10 interceptions, for good measure.
Linebacker Jake Hansen is the man to watch in this respect. He’s forced seven fumbles by his lonesome and added 71 tackles (second on the team), including 7.5 for a loss and 3.5 sacks. Illinois has also amassed 83 tackles for a loss as a team, good for eighth in the country.
The cherry on top for the Illinois team is the 6 touchdowns they’ve scored on defense. The 42 points they’ve amassed as a result of defensive scores is the main reason they’ve seen their scoring per game shift from go from 26.0 PPG to 30.7.
While the Iowa Hawkeyes have turned the ball over less than one time per game (0.9, to be exact), seven of their nine turnovers have happened in their three losses. In fact, a fumble has occurred in each of Iowa’s losses, with the fourth coming against Miami (OH). Only Michigan & Penn State have force half as many fumbles as Illinois at nine each.
Providing an even starker contrast to Illinois’s defense, is their big play-oriented offense. Though they have averaged 8.5 yards/pass during their four-game winning streak, it’s come on just 49.4% passing. Their 3.9 yards/carry is totally fine, but won’t blow anyone away. Only in their comeback win against Michigan State have they run more than 60 plays on that side of the ball. But, they’ve forced 12 turnovers in that timeframe.
It may be an oversimplification, but the game management style which sent Lovie Smith to the Super Bowl is resurrecting Illinois football.
Saturday has all the makings of a classic Iowa game where they simply try to out-execute the opponent and they may be able to beat Illinois in a phone booth. The style of offense Iowa rolls out is likely to limit possessions, which will only raise the importance of holding onto the football.
Illinois has shown they are able to capitalize on those errors. Best Iowa not make any.