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Iowa Football Opponent Preview: Illinois

Fresh off their biggest win of the season, can the Hawkeyes keep the momentum going against a surging Illini squad?

NCAA Football: Purdue at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

What a difference one week can make. Seven days ago, Hawkeye fans were still coming to grips with the reality of their fourth consecutive loss to Wisconsin and the forfeiture of a legitimate shot to win the Big Ten West. Now, Iowa is riding high off an upset win over the previously undefeated Minnesota Golden Gophers and is looking to finish its conference season strong with a three-game winning streak.

Enter Illinois. The Fighting Illini aren’t elite on either offense or defense but have proven themselves to be a scrappy team capable of beating opponents who make the mistake of taking them lightly. The 6th ranked Wisconsin Badgers certainly underestimated Illinois in October when they led the Illini 20-7 midway through the third quarter, and Michigan State definitely wrote Lovie Smith’s team off when the Spartans took a 28-3 lead in the second quarter of their matchup two weeks ago. Even if Iowa gets out to an early lead against Illinois this Saturday, the Hawkeyes won’t truly be able to relax until the final buzzer has sounded.

Illinois also benefits from playing Iowa at the opportune time. Not only are the Illini coming off of a bye week which gave them extra time to rest and prepare for this contest, but the Illinois game is sandwiched on Iowa’s schedule between two rivalry games against Minnesota and Nebraska. Coming off the high of their victory over the Gophers, it’s entirely possible that the Illini could catch the Hawkeyes either resting on their laurels or looking ahead to their upcoming trip to Lincoln, especially considering that Iowa beat Illinois 63-0 on the road last year.

Either way, the Hawkeyes will need to bring their A-game to avoid becoming the next team on the list of the Illini list of vanquished road favorites.

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

1. Can Iowa win the turnover battle?

The Illinois defense gives up over 400 yards per game, so Iowa should be able to move the ball against the Illini despite their longstanding struggles on offense. But the one thing the Illini defense does exceptionally well is create turnovers. Illinois leads college football with a turnover margin of fourteen, built largely on the strength of their nation-leading 26 takeaways on the season.

The Illini can create turnovers through interceptions (ten on the season), but are particularly adept at forcing and recovering fumbles, which they’ve managed to do an improbable sixteen times so far this season. Junior linebacker Jake Hansen is a one-man wrecking crew in this area and has seven forced fumbles and three recoveries on the year.

Illinois’ ability to force turnovers also greatly contributes to its offense. Not only does the Illini offense frequently benefit from a short field, but Illinois has scored six defensive touchdowns so far this season, with two of them coming off pick-sixes from star middle linebacker Dele Harding.

Fortunately for the Hawkeyes, ball security has not been much of a problem in 2019. Iowa has only committed nine turnovers (tied for the ninth-fewest in the country) due in large part to the impressive ball security from quarterback Nate Stanley, who has only thrown five picks on the season and has not been responsible for an interception in over a month. The Hawkeyes like to a play ball-control offense and try to win the time of possession game, and to do that against Illinois they will need to make sure they don’t allow turnovers to cut those possessions short.

2. Does Illinois have an answer for Tyler Goodson?

Iowa’s coaching staff finally listened to the cries of their fans last week and played freshman Tyler Goodson as a feature back, and not a moment too soon. Goodson shined against the Gophers, running for 94 yards and a touchdown on over seven yards-per-carry, including a 26-yard scamper of this beautifully designed play.

The talented freshman provided a real spark to an Iowa offense which had been dormant for weeks and showed exactly what makes him different from the other running backs on the roster. Goodson can accelerate and change direction quickly, which gives him the speed to beat tacklers with suboptimal angles,

and to turn the corner on outside run plays.

And while Goodson may not run with the power of a bigger back like Toren Young, he proved that he is certainly a physical runner in his own right.

Iowa’s offense is at its best when it can sustain drives and control the clock, but also when it can keep defenses honest by posing a legitimate threat in both the run and pass game. Iowa’s lackluster running attack has hurt this balance through much of the Big Ten season, but Goodson’s emergence could help the Hawkeye offense get back on track and should pose a serious threat to an Illinois defense that surrenders 196.2 rushing yards each game, the 2nd most in the conference.

The best chance Illinois has to contain Goodson is for their skill at forcing fumbles to continue in full this Saturday. Kirk Ferentz has always been reluctant to trust freshmen running backs, particularly those who he perceives as having problems with ball security. It’s also telling that Ferentz opted to go with the experienced hand in Mekhi Sargent instead of Goodson when Iowa was trying to run the clock out, a clear sign that he views the proven commodity as Iowa’s least fumble-prone ballcarrier. Will Goodson be able to continue his hot play this week, or can the Illini force him to make freshman mistakes early and tempt Kirk to yank the talented youngster in favor of the steady but ultimately less effective veterans?

Then again Sargent and Young combined to rush for nearly 200 yards against the Illini last year, so maybe it doesn’t matter after all?

3. Can Iowa’s defense continue its excellent play?

It’s not every day that Iowa surrenders nearly 400 passing yards and the defense in still credited with a masterful performance, but that’s exactly what happened in Iowa’s victory over Minnesota. Iowa’s defense isn’t perfect; Jonathan Taylor showed that an elite running back can still capitalize on the Hawkeyes’ limited athleticism at linebacker, while the secondary is still vulnerable to big plays downfield. However, with the breakout of A.J. Epenesa, the return of Kristian Welch at middle linebacker, and the exceptional coaching of defensive coordinator Phil Parker, the unit that surrenders the fifth-lowest number of points per game (12.4) may just now be ready to really hit its stride.

Illinois likely won’t be able to threaten Iowa much with it’s passing game, as the Illini have one of the worst aerial attacks in the conference and quarterback Brandon Peters has been held under 100 passing yards three times this season. However, while the strength of the Illini offense lies in its running backs Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown, they will struggle to gain much on the ground against a defense that has surrendered only four rushing touchdowns all season and hold opposing teams to a mere 3.49 yards-per-carry.

Iowa’s defense was gashed on the ground against Wisconsin and in the air against Minnesota. This week, the Hawkeyes have an opportunity to reestablish defensive dominance on both fronts.