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The Butcher’s Word: Illinois Fighting Illini

Bret Bielema and the Illini just took down Wisconsin. What should Hawkeye fans expect to see on Saturday?

NCAA Football: Illinois at Wisconsin
Can Iowa do what nobody else has done this season and slow down Chase Brown?
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The Iowa Hawkeyes are in serious need of a win after dropping their second game of the season last Saturday against the #4 Michigan Wolverines. Now the Hawkeyes hit the road for their second Big Ten road game, this time heading to Champaign to take on Illinois.

The Illini are off to a hot start and Bret Bielema just got the head man at his old school fired after stomping Wisconsin 34-10. They also, however, lost their Big Ten opener against a not great Indiana team. So what should we expect from them when the Hawkeyes come to town Saturday?

In the words of the wise and sage like Big Tom Callahan, you can get a good look at a t-bone by sticking your head up a bull’s rear end, but wouldn’t you rather take the butcher’s word for it?

So just like every other week (unless, of course, our cohorts at other SB Nation sites don’t get back to us..), we’re taking the butcher’s word for it and getting the inside details on Illinois from our friends over at The Champaign Room. We were joined this week by TCR’s Drew Pastorek to talk about this weekend’s matchup.

Here’s a look at our conversation.

BHGP: Let’s start with the obvious, Illinois is off to a great start in 2022 and fresh off a dominant win AT Wisconsin, which is not something done easily. What is different about this year’s group of Illini from the one Hawkeye fans saw a season ago in Kinnick, both from a personnel standpoint and in terms of scheme or approach to the game?

I’d say the main difference is simply the overall confidence level. I can’t overemphasize how much the “buy in” has affected the Illini. Last year they made great strides in Bret Bielema’s first season, but Bielema mentioned at Big Ten Media Days that he knows his roster better than he ever had, understanding what makes them tick and knowing how his players handle moments. Illinois has handled most of their major tests very well so far, crushing Virginia after a lopsided loss last year, and smashing Wisconsin in Madison (did you know Bret Bielema used to coach there? I feel like nobody has talked about that!) for the first time since 2002. The Illini are a bad 90 seconds — and a terrible officiating crew in Bloomington — away from being 5-0.

Also, the offense is much more balanced than last season. A large amount of credit goes to first-year OC Barry Lunney Jr. Lunney’s system is designed to spread the field sideline-to-sideline and distribute the football to an array of playmakers. The Illini have three legit wide receivers — Isaiah Williams, Pat Bryant, Brian Hightower — and Syracuse transfer QB Tommy Devito has shown command of the offense that Brandon Peters & Art Sitkowski lacked. Illinois’ defense has been outstanding, but the offense has averaged 29 ppg thus far, which will definitely put them in position to win a lot more.

BHGP: One name that’s not new is Chase Brown. The electric junior totaled just 13 carries and 49 yards a season ago in this matchup. Fast forward a year and he enters the weekend as the nation’s leading rusher. How has he improved this season and what has Bret Bielema done with this offensive line to help create so many running lanes?

TCR: The biggest difference I’ve seen with Brown, other than health (he had some nagging injuries last year), is that he is so tough to bring down. He leads FBS with 421 yards after contact, and Brown leads the Big Ten in forced missed tackles per attempt. He doesn’t possess blistering speed, but he’s physical and explosive with tremendous field vision. And I’m glad you mentioned the offensive line, because those guys are ENORMOUS — each starter is around 6’5” and between 305 & 330 pounds. You can absolutely tell that Bret Bielema is modeling this team after Iowa & Wisconsin.

BHGP: If there’s one major issue with the Illini offense, it’s been turnovers. Illinois has coughed up 9 fumbles through 5 games and lost 7 of them. QB Tommy Devito has also thrown a pair of interceptions. Is there anything you can point to from a ball security standpoint that’s causing the turnover issue and how do you expect the Illini to avoid the turnover bug against a group of ball-hawking Iowa defenders this week?

TCR: I think ball security is the biggest concern the Illini should have heading into this game. They were turnover-free against Wisconsin, which is certainly a positive sign. It’s a cliche, but something I really like about Devito is that he has a short memory — he recovers from his bad throws and doesn’t get down if he makes a mistake. He’ll come right back and keep throwing to rebuild his confidence. Some of the fumbles were just a matter of bad luck — one was a fumble literally a step away from the goal line, another was due to the opposing QB punching the ball free from a d-lineman following an interception. I know that protecting the football has been a point of emphasis for the coaching staff, and the past few weeks the Illini have been relatively clean. I would expect more low-risk throws and perhaps a more simplified gameplan against the Hawkeyes to try to limit the turnovers.

BHGP: On the other side of the ball, it’s no secret the Iowa offense is a complete mess. We saw some signs of life late against Michigan, but not enough to make Iowa fans feel better about facing an Illinois defense that is giving up only 8.4 points per game (first nationally). What should Hawkeye fans expect from the Illini from a scheme standpoint, how have they been so effective in stopping the run (#3 nationally in run defense at just over 70 yards per game) and how do you expect them to bring pressure against Spencer Petras and Iowa?

TCR: DC Ryan Walters runs a hybrid 3-3-5 set (but did begin the Wisconsin game in a 4-4 defense). The secondary has been so good that Illinois dares opponents to run the ball, but the defensive line swarms to the football when they do. Defensive linemen Keith Randolph & Johnny Newton, known collectively as “The Law Firm,” are almost impossible to contain 1-on-1, and Newton leads the nation in QB pressures (28). He just finds a way to get his. The Illini secondary plays a ton of man-to-man coverage, so opposing receivers don’t typically get a lot of free space. Indiana took advantage of some blown coverages and popped off some big plays, but the Hooisers have been the only team thus far to do it regularly. From what I’ve seen, Petras has a tendency to overthink, and Illinois’ defense just doesn’t give you enough time to make good reads. If Petras can get rid of the ball quickly and his receivers can get separation, Iowa will have a chance. But if this turns out to be like last week’s game and Iowa has to abandon the run, it’s gonna be a long evening for the Hawkeyes.

BHGP: Ok, prediction time. DraftKings Sportsbook has this one at Illinois -3.5 with an over/under at 36.5 as of this writing. How do you see this one playing out and what’s your prediction for the final score?

TCR: Admittedly, I was surprised at last week’s point total — Illinois scoring four TDs in Madison was a stunner. I’ve convinced myself that Illinois is going to win, but I expect this to be a typical Iowa rock-fight game. Both defenses are outstanding, but the Hawkeyes are a one-dimensional team whose best offensive player is a tight end. They simply don’t have dudes on offense you can rely on, and what we’ve seen from Spencer Petras so far is what you’re going to get. I’ll give the Hawkeyes credit for this: they are a smart, disciplined team, and they don’t quit. I expect Iowa to try to control time of possession and limit Illinois’ opportunities to move the ball. But the Fighting Illini are the more complete team, and they now believe that they can take down anybody. Good teams win, great teams cover. I’ll still take the under, though.

Illinois 20, Iowa 10

So there you have it, the Illini are back and the Hawkeyes are doomed. Feel free to start the Fire Ferentz chants now.

Thanks again to Drew at The Champaign Room. You can follow him on Twitter @kerotsap. You can also find The Champaign Room on the Twitters @Champaign_Room.

If you’re looking for more coverage of this week’s matchup, be sure to take a quick trip over to TCR. They’ve got a position-by-position look at the matchup, as well as a more in depth look at the game itself.