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Iowa Football Opponent Preview: Illinois

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Iowa will have to stop a potent running game to extend its winning streak against Illinois and stay in the hunt for the Big Ten West title.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 05 Iowa at Illinois Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When sitting down to evaluate the Illinois football team, one of the first observations that came to mind was that the Fighting Illini are a poor man’s version of the Wisconsin Badgers. While Illinois has nowhere near the talent of the Badgers, both teams are committed to the power running game to the point of being almost allergic to the forward pass, both teams run physical three-man fronts on defense, and both teams have improved their performance as the season progressed despite poor starts to the year. The similarities even extend to Illinois’ choice to lead the program: former Wisconsin head coach and Hawkeye defensive lineman Bret Bielema.

While the resumption of the rivalry between Iowa and its prodigal son will be delayed due to Bret Bielema’s COVID-19 diagnosis, there is reason to believe the Hawkeyes will still get Illinois’ best shot on Saturday. The Fighting Illini had a bye week to prepare for this matchup and desperately need a win against Iowa to stay in the running for bowl eligibility. While Iowa has dominated this series in recent years (Iowa has not lost to Illinois since 2008 and its last home loss to the Illini came in 1999), the Hawkeyes will need to avoid succumbing to the same pitfalls that doomed them against Wisconsin if they hope to keep their winning streak and their hopes for a Big Ten Championship alive.

Here are a few key factors to watch for in tomorrow’s game:

1. Can Iowa slow down the Illinois run game?

While Iowa’s run defense has been effective for most of the season, some cracks have begun to show over the past few games. Iowa gave up 189 yards on the ground to Minnesota last week, displaying the same poor tackling and susceptibility to cutbacks that Northwestern’s offense exposed in the second half the prior week. The Hawkeyes have now surrendered hundred-yard rushers in two of the past three games, with both of those performances coming against freshmen running backs.

Iowa will need to shore up its run defense if it hopes to keep the run-heavy Illini in check. Chase Brown has emerged as one of the conference’s top backs with monster rushing performances in upsets wins over Penn State (223 yards) and Minnesota (147 yards), and his 106.38 yards per game ranks second among all Big Ten backs. Meanwhile, 6’1”, 240 lb. freshman Josh McCray will remind Hawkeye fans of Wisconsin’s Braelon Allen and provides a bruising and effective counterweight to the more explosive running of Brown. If Iowa struggles to stop the run, it could also leave the Hawkeyes vulnerable to being attacked over the top, something which led to two long scoring plays against Minnesota.

However, Iowa’s defense should be in a good position if it does manage to slow down the Illini ground attack with its front seven. Illinois is incredibly dependent on the running game to move the ball and is averaging the 7th-fewest passing yards per game in college football, so if the Illini are likely in for a rough time if they are forced to pass to stay in the game. Still, Illinois’ power running offense does decrease the opportunities for Iowa to force turnovers, a trait which has been the calling card of the Hawkeye defense this season. Illinois has committed the third-fewest turnovers in the Big Ten with only nine on the season, but if the Hawkeyes can manage to get out to a healthy lead, perhaps they can coax the Illini out of their comfort zone and force them to throw into the teeth of the Iowa secondary.

2. Which line can hold up best in pass protection?

While neither Iowa nor Illinois have had particularly dynamic passing attacks this season, both teams’ quarterbacks have been hurt by inconsistent pass protection from their offensive lines. Iowa surrenders sacks on 8.2% of its non-garbage time passing attempts while Illinois allows them on 8.3% of attempts, ranking as the 102nd and 106th best teams respectively in this regard. The team whose line is best able to stand up against the opposing pass rush will have a major advantage when it chooses to go to the air in this game.

Illinois has been the superior pass rushing team so far this season, collecting 25 sacks on the year to Iowa’s 20, including sicks sacks against an excellent Minnesota front five two weeks ago. Outside linebacker Owen Carney is Illinois’ best pass rusher with six sacks on the season and will be a difficult assignment for Iowa’s offensive tackles to handle in this contest.

Still, there is some reason for optimism regarding Iowa’s offensive line. The Hawkeyes allowed no sacks last week, a statistic which can be partly credited to new starting quarterback Alex Padilla’s superior mobility to Spencer Petras, but which also reflects the fact that Iowa’s pass blocking was noticeably better than it has been for most of the year. If Iowa’s line is able to give Padilla sufficient time, Illinois has proven vulnerable to giving up big plays in the secondary and is allowing 237.6 yards per game through the air.

Meanwhile, Iowa’s pass rush has been solid in obvious passing downs but has otherwise struggled to produce pressure on QB drop backs for much of the season. Illinois, a team that is not afraid to run the ball on 3rd down is not likely to give Iowa many such attempts. With the Hawkeye linebackers likely to be keyed in on stopping the run, Iowa’s front four will need to prove it can consistently generate enough pressure to exploit Illinois’ vulnerability up front whenever Illini quarterback Brandon Peters looks to pass.

3. Which team can best capitalize on its redzone trips?

Unfortunately for both Iowa and Illinois, trips to the redzone have not necessarily meant touchdowns for either team this season. In fact, the Hawkeyes and the Fighting Illini have the worst redzone touchdown percentages in the conference with Iowa finding the endzone on 47.06% of its trips and Illinois doing so a woeful 40.91% of the time. Conversely, both teams boast two of the conference’s best redzone defenses, as Iowa surrenders touchdowns on only 43.33% of its opponents redzone trips compared to 44.74% for the Illini. Will either team be able to consistently capitalize on trips to the redzone in this game?

If both teams struggle in the redzone, it might be the team that can score from beyond the 20-yard line that has the advantage. The Hawkeyes have a decided advantage in this regard, as Iowa has produced twice as many 40+ yard plays from scrimmage (10) as Illinois has on the season (5). Should both offenses find themselves settling for field goals, the ability of Alex Padilla to attack the defense downfield like he did against Minnesota

or the big play ability of Tyler Goodson and Keagan Johnson

could prove critical in what may become a protracted pitch battle between two physical bend-but-don’t-break defenses.