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Iowa Football Opponent Preview: Illinois

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Iowa has had the number of the Illini in recent years. Can the Hawkeyes continue their strong streak of play and earn another hard-fought Big Ten road win?

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

While Iowa has been officially eliminated from Big Ten title contention with the cancellation of this week’s Northwestern vs. Minnesota game, the Hawkeyes still have plenty to play for in 2020. Trophy games, prestigious bowl invitations, an appealing championship week crossover matchup, and a continuation of Iowa’s four-game winning streak are all on the table as the Hawkeyes continue their growth with an eye on contending for a conference crown in 2021.

To keep its streak of victories alive, Iowa must defeat an Illinois team that surrendered its conference championship ambitions long before the Hawkeyes did, but is on the upswing after winning two consecutive games of its own. The Hawkeyes’ most recent win over Nebraska was encouraging in that it showed the team could win a close game after wilting late in two tightly contested contests early in the season, but also somewhat concerning in that Iowa seemingly played down to its opponent at times during the Black Friday matchup. Iowa will look to show greater consistency as it squares off against Lovie Smith and the Illini and tries for its 7th straight win against the team from Champaign.

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

1. Can Iowa slow down a powerful Illini rushing attack?

Iowa’s ground game has excelled through most of the season, but few teams in the Big Ten have run the ball as effectively as Illinois has through its first five games. The Illini are 2nd in the conference in both yards per carry (5.15) and per game (222.40) behind only Ohio State, and are among the top twenty teams in college football in average rushing yards per game. Mike Epstein (338 rushing yards, four touchdowns) and Chase Brown (357 rushing yards, two touchdowns) form one of the Big Ten’s best one-two punch combinations and will see plenty of touches on Saturday in Lovie Smith’s run-heavy offense. Meanwhile, quarterback Brandon Peters won’t terrify anyone with his straight-line speed, but he is a willing and capable runner who is averaging 7.4 yards per carry this season and repeatedly frustrated the Hawkeye defense in last year’s game by amassing 76 yards on the ground. Between Peters and his backup, the dynamic freshman Isaiah Williams who gouged Rutgers for 192 yards on the ground a few weeks ago, Illinois has enough juice in the QB run game to concern a defense that struggled to stop it against Nebraska.

Fortunately for Iowa, a run-heavy offense should play right into the hands of Phil Parker’s defense. Iowa is allowing a measly 2.83 yards per carry to opposing rushers this season (the fewest in the conference and fifth fewest in the country) largely on the strength of its defensive line, which has consistently shown an ability to get penetration into the backfield and disrupt opposing running plays.

The matchup between Iowa’s front four and the Illinois offensive line will be a particularly important one to watch and could determine whether the Illini are able to consistently move the ball on the ground. Illinois’ line play was hugely disappointing during the first three weeks of the Big Ten season but has been much better during the team’s recent winning streak. Has the Illinois line improved with the return of senior center Doug Kramer who was out to start the season, or does most of the credit go to the weak opponents the Illini played over the past two games? If Iowa’s defensive line can impose its will and shut down the running game, that should provide an answer to this question.

2. How much production can either team get from their passing games?

As effective as both Iowa and Illinois have been running the ball this season, they have been equally inept when called upon to pass it. Both schools rank among the bottom three Big Ten teams in passer rating, passing yards per game, passing touchdowns, and completion percentage. Illinois can attribute some of these poor stats to Brandon Peters missing three games due to injury, but having their starter on the field has not guaranteed passing proficiency, as the senior completed only 42% of his passes against Wisconsin for a passer rating of 80.6. On the other sideline, Petras’ struggles with consistency have been well documented this season (including by me), but given his natural arm strength and the explosive talent of the receiving corps, it’s too early to completely write off growth at this position before season’s end.

Fortunately for Iowa, the Illini defense presents an opportunity to jumpstart the Hawkeye passing attack. Illinois is allowing 252.8 passing yards per game and gave up almost 400 passing yards against Purdue while allowing Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz to throw for five touchdowns on a nearly perfect 20-21 performance in his first collegiate start. Petras has shown a tendency to start games strong before fading late, but perhaps Saturday could be a chance for him to sustain his early-game rhythm for the entire contest.

Iowa’s defense, meanwhile, should present a real challenge to Peters when he drops back to pass, as the Hawkeye pass rush has tallied 19 sacks through six games so far this season. Josh Imatorbhebhe gives Peters an athletic target at wide receiver and Daniel Barker has excelled as a receiving tight end this season, but neither present matchup difficulties that Iowa cannot overcome. If the Hawkeyes can make Illinois one-dimensional but shutting down the pass while also coaxing a strong game from Spencer Petras, the Illini could be in serious trouble.

3. Which team can best succeed at forcing turnovers?

Turnovers can kill any team’s chances of victory, but this has been particularly true for both Iowa and Illinois this season. While both teams have excellent per-game turnover margins (1.33 for Iowa, 1.2 for Illinois) and force the same number of takeaways per game (2.6), the disparity in turnover numbers between wins and losses for both squads are significant. Illinois has committed at least twice as many turnovers as its opponent in each of its losses but has a staggering 8:1 turnover margin its favor in games it has won. The Hawkeyes, meanwhile, are 0-2 in games in which they turn over the ball two or more times and undefeated when giving the ball up only once.

The team that holds the turnover edge in this game will have a huge advantage in its favor. If Illinois manages to win the turnover battle, it will likely be on the back senior linebacker Jake Hansen, a one-man turnover machine who has two interceptions, two forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries on the season after forcing a whopping seven fumbles last year in addition to three recoveries and a pick. On the other side, the Hawkeyes may have finally snapped their lengthy streak of consecutive games with an interception last week, but Phil Parker’s squad still has ten picks on the year and has returned two of them for touchdowns. Meanwhile, Iowa’s tenacious defensive line has shown as great a penchant for forcing fumbles as Zack Vanvalkenburg has for recovering them, so chances are that if the Illini put the ball on the ground, the senior defensive end will be nearby to scoop it up.