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Iowa Football: Five Questions on the Illinois Fighting Illini

The Hawkeyes look to extend yet another impressive winning streak over a border rival.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Penn State
Hello old friend.
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The Iowa Hawkeyes look to keep their current winning streak and any hopes of a Big Ten West title alive as they play host to the Illinois Fighting Illini on senior day this Saturday. The Illini come into the matchup off a bye with a win over the Minnesota Gophers in their last live action.

This Illinois team is a bit different from the iterations Iowa fans have seen in recent years, but they’re new head coach is a familiar face as former Hawkeye Bret Bielema took over this year. To get a better understanding of what to expect from the Illini under their new head man, we sat down with Andrew Pastorek of SB Nation’s Illinois site, The Champaign Room.

Here’s a look at our conversation.

BHGP: I really wanted to start off with some hard-hitting banter about our old friend and new Illinois head coach Bert, but news broke on Tuesday that he’s going to miss this one due to COVID. What has been different about this group so far this season under Bielema and how does losing him for Saturday impact this matchup?

TCR: I guess the most noticeable difference has been Illinois’ competitiveness. Other than the game at Virginia — which was basically over before I found the ACC Network — and homecoming against Wisconsin — which I mercifully didn’t see a single second of due to a wedding — the Illini have been in position to win every single week. The fact that the Illini have achieved this with almost the exact roster Lovie Smith put together is...not exactly a glistening review of the previous staff. Bielema has already established Illinois’ identity and model for success: win up front, run the ball, control the clock.

As far as the impact on this game? It’s difficult to say. Bielema isn’t one of these genius play callers; he’s surrounded himself with a stable of assistants he trusts. He mentioned in this week’s presser that they’ve been preparing for this game since January, intimating that he is confident that they can execute the plan without him. As long as the defense plays well, Illinois ought to have a chance.

BHGP: It’s been a bit of an up and down season for the Illini so far with some disappointing losses but also some big time wins. A key trend in all those wins has been a heavy reliance on the run game. What should Iowa fans expect from the Illini on the ground and who are the key names to know in Illinois’s rushing attack?

TCR: Even if they weren’t watching the tape of last week’s game, the Illini will want to run, run, and run some more. As you mentioned, that’s been their recipe for success. Earlier in Big Ten play we got to see a lot of freshman Josh McCray, a 6-foot-1, 240-pound former linebacker & Bret Bielema’s first recruit. He’s a bowling ball of a back and gets almost all of his yards after contact. But the past few weeks have been mostly about Chase Brown. In Illinois’ last three wins (Charlotte, @ Penn State, @ Minnesota), he’s rushed for 627 yards on 91 attempts. The Illini will most likely ride with those two guys, but there may be a few “wildcat” plays from QB-turned-WR Isaiah Williams sprinkled in. I wouldn’t anticipate anyone else getting too many snaps if the game is close.

BHGP: In the passing game, Illinois lost starter Artur Sitkowski to a broken arm and have turned back to Brandon Peters who had a decent showing against the Hawkeyes a season ago. How has that change impacted the Illinois passing attack and how do you expect the Illini to approach throwing the ball against an Iowa defense that has proven to have a nose for the ball?

TCR: Neither guy has really lit it up. Sitkowski looked awesome in relief against Nebraska and had a very good game against UTSA (266 yds, 3 TDs, 0 INT) but has otherwise been meh. Peters was the incumbent, got hurt, came back, looked awful for about a month, and then put together his two best games of the year back-to-back. Peters only attempted nine passes against Minnesota, completing seven. But truthfully, all of those passes were smart throws and made sense based on the game plan.

In a perfect world, the Illini can sustain drives with McCray & Brown and will only need BP to throw in short-yardage situations. It’s not that Peters doesn’t have a strong arm, it’s just that he’s been very erratic & inaccurate on intermediate and deep passing patterns and tends to hold on to the ball too long while waiting for guys to get open. If Illinois is behind and needs to throw it’ll be a long afternoon.

BHGP: Flipping to the other side of the ball, the Hawkeyes have found some modest footing with Alex Padilla under center but continue to be less than an offensive juggernaut. Illinois defensively has been relatively stout this season giving up roughly 3 touchdowns a game, but over the last three games they’ve really ratcheted things up giving us fewer than 15 points per game with wins over Penn State and Minnesota. What type of scheme do the Illini run and how do you expect them to attack an Iowa offensive line that has really struggled to establish the run game and keep a clean pocket?

TCR: Newly-extended DC Ryan Walters deploys a 3-3-5 scheme and he has really turned up the heat the past few weeks. In the last two games against ranked foes — both on the road — the Illini sacked Sean Clifford four times and Tanner Morgan six more. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Linebacker Owen Carney Jr. leads Illinois with 6.5 sacks and 7.5 TFLs. Defensive linemen Rod Perry, Johnny Newton & Keith Randolph have combined for 7 sacks and 9.5 TFLs. And junior DB Kerby Joseph has emerged as a ball-hawk, leading the Illini with 4 INTs and 3 fumble recoveries.

Illinois’ defense has made a 13.3-point improvement from last season and they’ve also allowed 77 fewer yards per game — again, with mostly the same talent as last season’s bunch. It’s been an astounding turnaround. In Big Ten play, the Illini are only giving up 17.6 ppg. It’s been a total team effort — their tackling is better, players are sticking to their assignments and are much more disciplined overall. Walters is a great defensive tactician and he’s gotten a lot out of these dudes.

BHGP: OK, prediction time. The DraftKings Sportsbook has this one at Iowa -12 with an over/under at 38.5 total points. How do you see this one playing out and what’s your final score prediction?

TCR: As an Illinois native who now lives in Cedar Rapids, I’ve watched both teams quite a bit. I’m trying to envision the Hawkeyes winning by more than 12, and I just don’t see them getting that much separation. With Illinois’ defensive resurgence and both teams’ offensive issues, I would hammer the under (a 21-17 final STILL gets you there) for entertainment purposes only. I try not to be an all-out homer, but screw it. Daddy needs this one. Give me Illinois, 20-16*.

*I’ll be at Kinnick for the game, so the Illini will assuredly get demolished by 30 and I’ll be subsequently ridiculed by my wife, my friends, my wife’s friends, and the 12 people on Twitter who actually pay attention to me. See you there.

So there you have it, the Hawkeyes are officially on upset watch this weekend.

Thanks again to Andrew of The Champaign Room for taking the time. Be sure to check out some of the great Iowa content over on TCR this week, including some coverage of Bert’s COVID news and Illinois’ offseason preparation for the Hawkeyes discussed in a press conference earlier this week. You can also follow Andrew on the Twitter machine @kerotsap. The Champaign Room is @Champaign_Room.

Go Hawks.