Five weeks into the 2022 football season, the Iowa Hawkeyes stand at a crossroads. With a 3-2 record (1-1 in conference play) and difficult games against Ohio State, Minnesota, and Purdue still looming, Iowa’s season could veer sharply in one of two directions; mediocrity, or contention for a division title in a Big Ten West that remains ripe for the taking. It does not seem dramatic to ask whether Iowa’s upcoming game against Illinois could be the difference between staying alive in the Big Ten West or having to scratch and claw to achieve bowl eligibility.
To say that Iowa will find a motivated opponent in Illinois would be an understatement. The Fighting Illini have not beaten the Hawkeyes since 2008 and are coached by former Hawkeye player and Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema, who missed his chance to stick it to his former team when he was forced to sit out last year’s game due to a positive COVID-19 test. Illinois is riding high off an impressive victory over the Badgers and is gearing up to host a night game over a team that has spent two decades stealing elite talent from within their state’s borders. Illinois fancies themselves a contender in the West and will be ready to give Iowa its best shot, whether the Hawkeyes are prepared to handle it or not.
Here are a few key factors to watch for in this week’s game:
1. Can Iowa rely on its passing game to propel its offense?
Iowa struggled mightily to run the ball against Michigan last week, stringing together only 35 yards on 1.5 yards per carry. The Hawkeye ground game might find even tougher sledding against Illinois, a squad that ranks 3rd nationally in run defense and is only allowing opponents to rush for 70.2 yards per contest. Last week, the Illini absolutely suffocated the vaunted Wisconsin rushing game, holding the Badgers to an almost impossible two total rushing yards and limiting All-Big Ten tailback Braelon Allen to .3 yards per carry. Illinois consistently committed additional defenders to the box to help stop the run and succeeded in dominating an offensive line that has played far better than Iowa’s front five this season. Barring some creative play-calling, huge progress up front, or a true breakout performance from one of Iowa’s running backs, it is hard to imagine the Hawkeyes having much success on the ground this week.
Can Iowa manage to beat the Illini through the air? Illinois dared Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz to punish them for loading the box, successfully wagering that he could not make enough plays with his arm to sustain drives. Spencer Petras has looked better over the past few weeks after an abysmal start to the season and seemed to find his rhythm late against the Wolverines, though it remains unclear how much of this success can be credited to him rather than laid at the feet of a defense letting its guard down when it believed the game was already in hand. Illinois is allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete a lower percentage of their passes than any team in the country (43%) and while these numbers are slightly inflated thanks to abysmal performances by Wyoming and Chatanooga, they speak to a competent defense bolstered by a strong pair of cornerbacks in Devon Witherspoon and Quan Martin.
However, the strength of Illinois’ pass defense lies in its pass rush. Illinois has sacked opposing QBs 16 times this season, and freshman outside linebacker Gabe Jacas is exactly the type of explosive edge rusher who can create problems for Iowa if he matches up against Iowa’s right tackles, a major area of weakness for the team this season. Yet Illinois’ most dangerous pass rush will come from the interior. Defensive tackle Jer’Zhan Newton leads the country in QB hits (12) and pressures (28), and his running mate Keith Randolph is no slouch himself. Iowa’s interior offensive line has had significant struggles this season and will need to put together its best pass blocking performance of 2022 to give the decidedly immobile Spencer Petras enough time to attack downfield.
Speaking of Petras, this game may ultimately rest on his right arm. Iowa’s coaching staff has doubled-down on Petras in the face of strong pressure from both fans and members of the media to make a change, believing him to be the best hope for jumpstarting Iowa’s dysfunctional offense. Can Petras’ mechanics hold up against a strong pass rush and an aggressive defense front? Can he make smart, quick decisions with the ball and hit receivers when they are open? Petras has been heavily reliant on his tight ends over the past two weeks, a position Illinois has defended extremely well this season. Can Petras find a way to get Iowa’s receivers more involved? Illinois relies heavily on man coverage, which could create opportunities for Petras to take shots downfield. Whether he can connect on some of these deep throws, and whether his receivers and offensive line will give him enough opportunities to throw them, could help decide the game.
2. Can Iowa stop the run?
Last week, Iowa’s vaunted defense faced one of the country’s best running backs and came up wanting. Michigan’s Blake Corum scampered for 133 yards and a touchdown, the most yards gained against Iowa by an opposing back in almost two calendar years. Iowa’s defensive tackles consistently lost at the point of attack, its defensive ends struggled to seal the edge, and its linebackers had uncharacteristic struggles tackling in space.
The Hawkeyes will need to perform better against a similarly dangerous running attack to escape Champaign with a win this week. Illinois running back Chase Brown is the nation’s leading rusher with 733 yards and runs behind a powerful offensive line well-suited to propel Bielema’s power running attack. Iowa was able to hold Brown to only 42 yards on 3.2 yards per attempt during last year’s matchup largely by focusing on the run at the expense of the pass game, a proposition made more dangerous by Illinois’ offseason addition of quarterback Tommy Devito and ascension of Pat Bryant as a competent wide receiver to compliment Isaiah Williams. The Hawkeyes were arguably too deferential to Michigan’s passing attack last week and were punished for not being willing to commit additional energy to stopping the run. Iowa will need to avoid making a similar mistake this week, as well as have a bounce-back performance from the defensive line, to prevent themselves from being gouged by the Fighting Illini rushing attack.
3. Can Iowa display a clear advantage on special teams?
One area where Iowa has shown a decided advantage over the Illini this season is the kicking game. The Illini lost two of the country’s top specialists in kicker James McCourt and punter Blake Hayes, and their absence has clearly been felt in 2022. Illinois is averaging more than ten fewer yards per punt than Iowa (36.91 compared to 47.21), is allowing one of the conference’s highest kick return averages (20.91 yards per return), and is only 2-5 on kicks from 40+ yards this season. Iowa, meanwhile, has a field-flipping weapon at punter in Tory Taylor, has seemingly stabilized its kicking game since tapping Drew Stevens for the starting job, and ranks second in the Big Ten in kickoff return yardage (25.25 yards per return), narrowly trailing a Wisconsin team that busted a handful of big returns against Illinois last week. In a game where field position could play a major role, Iowa’s superior kicking game could ultimately play an important part in deciding the outcome. Similarly, a big play in the return game could create a huge momentum swing for the Hawkeyes, something the Illini found out the hard way during last year’s matchup. Iowa may be without Charlie Jones for this game, but don’t be shocked if its special teams become a similarly important factor on Saturday.