One area which was relatively exposed in last week’s game against Michigan was the Iowa Hawkeyes struggling to stop the Wolverine rushing attack. Behind an assertive back in Blake Corum, they built a 13-point lead with an efficient passing attack and, more importantly, 131 rushing yards on 25 attempts (5.2 YPC).
The Hawkeye defense stiffened in the second half but Blue still finished with 4.1 YPC (a full yard above the worst Iowa had allowed previously this season). The first half damage was done.
Illinois followed a similar script to open last year’s matchup, using efficient passing to score a first-possession touchdown. The Hawks made an uncharacteristic special teams mistake which allowed a field goal and the Illini had Iowa where they wanted: up 10-0. Fortunately, a kick return touchdown got Iowa right on the board to regain momentum with an Arland Bruce IV-fueled drive giving the Hawks a lead they didn’t yield the rest of the way. Ultimately, Chase Brown had just 61 yards on 15 touches but looks like an even better back - behind an even better line - through five games this season.
Through five games, he’s pacing the league in yards (and carries) and 10th in the Big Ten at 6.1 yards/rush. There are five guys ahead of him the Hawkeyes still have to face. Whether Iowa can contain the feisty 5’11” 200-pound back may indicate how well the Hawkeyes will do in defending the run through the second half of the season.
The biggest concern as it stands now is along the defensive line. Noah Shannon is the most traditionally built defensive tackle and has a solid season so far. Yet depth up front via Yahya Black’s injury has forced him (190 snaps) and Logan Lee (256!) into heavier playing time than expected. The lack of interior depth has also forced Lukas Van Ness (198) to maintain the role he saw throughout much of last year as a backup tackle instead of a more imposing defensive end. With Iowa’s lightest end (Joe Evans - 184) continuing to function as the starter in that unit, it lowers the floor on Iowa’s ability to defend the run.
There’s also the concern that Brown could pull a Blake Corum and put Jack Campbell on skates in space. As Bartt put it, Campbell is gonna be thinking about that in 50 years. Nonetheless, Iowa’s linebackers have been solid in run support with Campbell, Seth Benson, and Jay Higgins combining for 32 tackles. Let’s not forget Cooper DeJean’s seven, either.
Brown averaged over 5 yards/carry last week against Wisconsin (buoyed by a 49-yard scamper) but is the type of back who can have success against Iowa. He packs a punch and is rarely down at first contact. If Illinois takes what Phil Parker gives them, they can have success, relative term, offensively in another rock fight. After all, they’re yielding just 8 points/game so they do not need to score 30 to get the W.
Yet Iowa has plenty of motivation to show last week was an aberration defensively. Tightening up the rushing defense is the most important area for the Hawks to improve this week and going forward. Forcing a turnover or two will certainly help, as Illinois has shown a propensity to put the ball on the turf with 1.4 fumbles lost/game.