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The Butcher’s Word: Illinois

We caught up with the folks over at The Champaign Room to talk Hawkeyes and Illini!

NCAA Football: Illinois at Minnesota
Did someone say steak?
Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

The Iowa Hawkeyes entered the week one win away from clinching the Big Ten West thanks to a dominating (yes, I said it) 22-0 win over Rutgers. But the Hawkeyes were dealt some brutal news earlier this week when we learned star cornerback and return man Cooper DeJean will miss the remainder of the season.

With Iowa now prepared to close out their home slate short-staffed, they face an Illini team that has been up and down all year. Despite the volatility, Illinois has won their last two matchups and enters the weekend still in position to win the West if they close out the year on a winning streak.

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 rather than sticking our head up anyone’s rear end, we’re asking our friends over at The Champaign Room for their words on the Illinois Fighting Illini. We were joined by Andrew Pastorek over at TCR to talk all things Illinois this week. Here’s a look at our conversation.

BHGP: Let’s start with the big news this week on the Illinois QB situation. After sophomore starter Luke Altmyer was knocked from the game on the final drive against Minnesota, senior John Paddock came on in relief to go 3 for 3 and win the game for the Illini. He followed that up with an absurd 507 yards passing in the shootout with Indiana. But now our old friend Bret Bielema has announced that it will be Altmyer who starts against Iowa this weekend. Loaded question here, but maybe just highlight the similarities and differences between the two, what each bring to the table and your thoughts on the decision by Bielema.

TCR: It truly is a unique situation. While I believe Altmyer is the better QB of the two, Paddock may be the better choice right now. We’ve seen 62 good minutes of John Paddock, and the Illini offense has executed at an insane level during that time. Paddock just seems to see the field better — he’s precise, makes quick decisions, and has a calm yet confident demeanor. He’s also a sixth-year senior and a sentimental favorite — if you hadn’t seen or heard the “John Paddock Story,” his great-grandfather, grandfather, and uncle all lettered at Illinois, and he wears #4 as a nod to being a 4th-gen Illini.

While Paddock is more of a prototypical pocket passer, Altmyer has shown more athleticism and escapability. The Ole Miss transfer has led Illinois in rushing three times this season, including a 100-yard day against Wisconsin. But he tends to hang on to the football too long, can miss easy throws, and has been turnover-prone. We’ve said amongst ourselves at The Champaign Room that “no one is ever open” when Altmyer has had the reins — I’m not sure if that’s an indictment of him or the offensive playcalling.

Paddock certainly has the hot hand right now, and it’s admittedly weird not giving him the keys after putting up the second-most passing yards in program history. But receivers won’t be roaming freely all over the field against the Hawkeyes, and it isn’t like Altmyer was playing poorly enough to lose the job — he’s fifth in the Big Ten in completions (175), sixth in yards (1,883), and fifth in yards per game (209.2). Neither guy is throwing for 500 on Saturday, real talk. But 14-17 points could be enough to win this game, and Altmyer can definitely get that.

BHGP: In the running game, as we have come to expect from Bielema-coached teams, the Illini have had some success with the rushing attack, averaging more than 139 yards per game on the ground. A big part of that has been the big-bodied freshman Kaden Feagin, who leads the Illini with 438 yards and a pair of TDs this season. How has Illinois found success in the running game and how do you expect Barry Lunney Jr. to try to attack this Iowa defense?

TCR: Illinois’ running back room has been like a game of musical chairs this season. Kaden Feagin entered 2023 as RB4 on the depth chart. But a preseason injury to freshman Jordan Anderson, followed by in-season injuries to Josh McCray & Reggie Love thrust Feagin into the starting lineup. If he can get through the initial wave of defenders there aren’t too many linebackers or defensive backs that can bring down a 6-foot-3, 250-pound runner one-on-one. But now Feagin himself is dinged up, and Reggie Love is coming off a 140-yard game.

I think Illinois has had success because of a balanced attack — even in last week’s shootout versus Indiana, the Illini threw 36 times and ran 37. They haven’t relied as heavily on the running game this year as they did last season with Chase Brown, but make no mistake about it, Bret Bielema wants to pound the rock, and offensive coordinator Barry Lunney has a tendency to resort to a much more conservative plan late in games. However, I hope to see Lunney test the secondary more in light of Cooper Dejean’s injury, and the Illini have one of the best receiving corps in the Big Ten. But I won’t be surprised at all if I see Illinois hand the ball off three times and punt trying to bleed clock with a 4th-quarter lead.

BHGP: On the other side of the ball, I would say just putting 11 guys out there might be enough to stop the Iowa offense. But the Hawkeyes showed some life last week and the Illini looked like perhaps they didn’t play with 11 defenders. Illinois is now giving up almost 31 points per game in Big Ten play. What’s been different about the Illini defense under first-year DC Aaron Henry vs. what saw a season ago from now-Purdue HC Ryan Walters? Specifically, is there anything different schematically from what we saw a year ago and how do you expect Henry to approach this matchup?

TCR: Well, first things first, let’s talk personnel. Illinois lost DBs Kendall Smith, Jartavius Martin, Sydney Brown, and Devon Witherspoon to the NFL, with the latter being a top-five pick in last April’s draft. It just wasn’t fair for anyone to expect this group to replicate last year’s performance. On top of that, sophomore safety Matthew Bailey missed all but one half of one game this year due to injury. That’s five impact players lost just in the secondary. The linebacking corps has improved greatly as the season’s progressed — Dylan Rosiek & Kenenna Odeluga have emerged as really good finds for this staff — and Seth Coleman & Gabe Jacas are a formidable tandem as hybrid LB/DE. But the real strength of Illinois’ defense is the line, led by The Law Firm — not Czinano & Clark, but Johnny Newton & Keith Randolph. Newton was a preseason All-American and is a finalist for the Nagurski Award. He’s an absolute force and has had an Aaron Donald-like effect on defense. I know Kirk Ferentz knows that, too.

Aaron Henry has certainly experienced some growing pains this year — giving up 45 to Indiana and 44 to Purdue is very concerning. It’s also his first season as a defensive coordinator, and he’s a Bielema guy, so I think he’ll get a tad more leeway to work things out. The obvious strategy should be to put a lot of pressure on Deacon Hill and make him as uncomfortable as possible. Illinois doesn’t have a ton of sacks this season but they have been able to put heat on the QB.

BHGP: OK, it’s Iowa so we have to talk special teams. Punter Hugh Robertson is averaging nearly 43 yards per punt on the season while pinning opponents inside the 20 on basically a third of his punts with just a pair of touchbacks on the season. Talk a bit about his game and what we can expect from him Saturday. And then when it comes to placekicking, things seem to have been a bit more up and down with Caleb Griffin missing a pair of extra points this year and connecting on just 69% of his FGs on the season, despite having the leg to kick out to 53 yards. Is there more to the story there and how do Illini fans feel if this one comes down to a last second field goal attempt by Griffin?

TCR: Of course the Iowa guy wants to talk about punting...

Robertson has been pretty good this year, but he’s nowhere near the weapon Tory Taylor is. Maybe Illinois will gain 662 yards again and we won’t have to worry about flipping the field, but my guess is he’ll be out there quite a bit Saturday.

Caleb Griffin’s lack of consistency throughout his career has been frustrating but he’s had a knack for making big kicks, including two game-winning field goals this season. I would trust him in the clutch, though I’d rather see Illinois scored touchdowns.

BHGP: OK, prediction time. Our friends over at DraftKings Sportsbook have the Hawkeyes favored by 3.5 points in this one. Iowa fans are used to making history with low point totals, but they actually have this one at just-above-historically-low total of 30.5 total points. How do you see this one playing out and what’s your final score prediction for Saturday?

TCR: “Not quite historically bad” is a pretty low bar to clear, but last year’s game had a total of 15, so who could be sure?

The Illini have played two consecutive surprisingly high-scoring games, but I don’t expect to see three in a row. Iowa’s defense is by far the best Illinois has faced, and they haven’t beaten the Hawkeyes in Kinnick Stadium since I was in 8th grade. I’ll be in the stands watching, waiting for an Illini turnover followed by an inevitable Iowa 12-yard touchdown drive, one of their two TDs of the game.

The second Iowa touchdown will likely come when Illinois decides to play not to lose — whether or not they’re actually winning — in the 4th quarter, in hopes that the defense will be able to make a stop late. Aaron Henry will go “prevent defense” which will leave the middle of the field wide open and allow Deacon Hill to magically complete two (maybe even three!) consecutive passes between the hashes. Illinois will then make an outstanding defensive play on third or fourth down which will assuredly be negated by a penalty that only gets called on Illinois, giving the Hawkeyes new life and allowing them to go in for the game-winning score.

Iowa 17, Illinois 16. Life sucks, but at least I can go to Wig & Pen afterwards.

So there you have it, the Hawkeyes clinch the West and we finally hit the OVER!

Thanks again to Andrew Pastorek at The Champaign Room for taking the time to talk Hawkeyes and Illini with us. Be sure to stop over to TCR to take a look at their coverage for this week’s matchup. They go in depth on the decision to bench John Paddock, as well as a whole lot more.