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Matchup to Watch: Illinois’ Chase Brown vs. Iowa’s rush defense

Will the Hawkeyes be able to contain Illinois’ run game?

NCAA Football: Iowa at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Week 1: Ty Fryfogle vs. Iowa’s corners
Week 2: Charlie Kolar/Chase Allen vs. Iowa’s linebackers
Week 3: Kent State’s corners vs. Iowa’s wide receivers
Week 4: Thomas Pannunzio vs. Tory Taylor
Week 5: Maryland’s offensive line vs. Iowa’s defensive line
Week 6: Jahan Dotson vs. Iowa’s secondary
Week 7: George Karlaftis vs. Iowa’s tackles
Week 8: BYE
Week 9: Jim Leonhard vs. Brian Ferentz
Week 10: Kirk Ferentz vs. Himself
Week 11: Minnesota’s pass defense vs. Alex Padilla

Alex Padilla looked like the type of quarterback Iowa needed with his ability to throw on the run and connecting down the field, particularly two big plays to Charlie Jones. He stayed clean in terms of sacks and interceptions and helped Iowa max out their scoring with season-low time of possession.

The #17 Iowa Hawkeyes (8-2, 5-2) remain in a tie for the Big Ten West lead with #15 Wisconsin and will look to maintain or take the lead against the Illinois Fighting Illini (4-6, 3-4). There’s a chaotic scenario where Illinois finds their way into a tie at 5-4. Naturally, that means a win against Iowa and they’ll use an excellent run game to try and get there.

Lead back Chase Brown has been an absolute workhorse for the Illini at a clean 6 yards/carry and 25+ carries in three of their four wins. Illinois employs plenty of the old Wisconsin-style running with 6+ offensive linemen to serve as lead blockers and get the technically-fourth-year-sophomore in space.

He reminds me a bit of Mekhi Sargent in his ability to combine enough shiftiness to make guys miss with strength to shirk would-be tacklers in a smaller frame.

Defensively, the Hawks have been pretty okay against the run over the course of the season. Nobody has eclipsed more than 4 yards per carry except for Maryland in a game Iowa won handily. Yet the sheer volume Iowa has faced over the course of the last five games warrants concern at 39 carries/game with Wisconsin and Minnesota at 48 & 50.

The main concern is up front, where Iowa lacks the classic over-300 pound defensive tackle to take up bodies. The Illinois offensive linemen weigh above 300 and have plenty of experience.

A best case is that Iowa’s defensive line occupies the offensive line to free up Hawkeye linebackers to make plays. Jack Campbell sits just 3 tackles shy of 100 and would be the first Hawk over the mark since Josey Jewell in 2017. Seth Benson is also excellent in run fits and has 72 tackles on the seaosn.

Yet Iowa struggled against Minnesota throughout much of the first half, particularly on a shotgun toss which allowed their backs to get in space and create cutback lanes with offensive linemen blocking linebackers. The Hawkeyes were able to get to halftime and throw tons of run blitzes at the Gophers to stymie their attack but it was a bit of a weakness for future opponents to identify.

If Iowa has to commit too much to the run game, it could open them up to constraint plays like this one Illinois used to get a lead on Minnesota:

While Bret Bielema will not be available for the game, the Illini are constructed in his image. Chase Brown is a tricky back to bring down and the Hawkeyes will need to improve in their tackling to prevent him from breaking any big plays.

In a game where points are very likely to be at a premium, defending Illinois starts with the Hawks’ ability to contain the run and force them to become one-dimensional. If they’re able to do that, Brandon Peters as been a volatile quarterback and Iowa should be able to take advantage.

Yet if it maintains tight throughout, Illinois is very likely to remain wedded to a run game and hope it eventually breaks in their favor. It’ll create a more tense game than it probably should be and open the Hawks up to a disappointing loss after bouncing back and serve as the nail in the coffin to their divisional hopes.