Last week Iowa welcomed the B1G’s leading rusher, Kyle Monangai, into Kinnick Stadium and shut him down to the tune of 39 yards on 13 carries. Reggie Love III does not have the stats of Kyle Monangai, but if not for an injury against Nebraska he very well might have. Last week saw Love III, in his first game since October 6th, run for 140 yards (5.8 ypc) and 2 TDs, which is a pretty solid return. Saturday will also see the return of Luke Altmayr to the starting role, and while he’s not a “mobile” QB, he’s sporting nearly 300 rushing yards through 11 weeks.
Illinois is hardly an offensive powerhouse, they’ve struggled mightily against top 20 defenses (PSU, Nebraska) and last weeks shootout with Indiana featured two of the worst defenses in the conference, so I’m not sure anyone should be surprised by the combined 93 points put up by these two offenses (though John Paddock throwing for ~500 yards in his first start for the Illini probably wasn’t on anyone’s B1G bingo card).
Iowa comes into this game looking to seal the B1G West championship for the 2nd time in 3 years and fresh off it’s best overall performance since week 3. The defense is fresh off it’s first shutout of the season and is certainly looking to continue to burnish Phil Parker’s credentials now that he’s been announced as a finalist for the Broyle’s Award as the Nation’s Top Assistant Coach (an award he should win every year if you ask me). It also enters Saturday without everyone’s favorite Iowan available at CB, so there are some legitimate concerns about facing a team that likes to throw the ball around, and has some playmakers on the outside.
Iowa - 243 ypg, 18.8 ppg
Illinois - 395.7 ypg, 23.8 ppg
As I mentioned above, Illinois isn’t a powerhouse, but they have some very talented players at the skill positions, and a halfway decent QB. Reggie Love III and Kaden Feagin have put up a combined 835 yards and 5 touchdowns this season on the ground, and the talented WR trio of Isaiah Williams, Pat Bryant, and Casey Washington have caught a combined 136 passes for 1,802 yards and 12 TDs. Luke Altmyer will get the start and while he is slightly more accurate than his backup John Paddock, he’s also far more turnover prone (having thrown 10 INTs against 13 touchdowns this season).
Iowa had it’s best offensive performance in months (well, the better part of 2 months anyway) against Rutgers and looked like they might be figuring out just how to put Deacon Hill in situations where he can be successful. The running game also looked pretty good against a stout Rutgers defense and the Oline, with Tyler Elsbury at center, looked as sharp as it has in a while (especially given all the injuries being played through). Signs of life, however, are not the same as proof that they’ve got things figured out.
Advantage - Illinois
Iowa - 3.99 ypp, 9.9 ppg allowed
Illinois - 5.35 ypp, 29.3 ppg allowed
The chasm between last year’s Illini defense and this years couldn’t possibly be much bigger. Losing DC Ryan Walters to Purdue and a load of portal talent to graduation has dropped Illinois from the #1 scoring / #2 total defense in the land last year, to the #101 scoring / #51 total defense this season.
Iowa on the other hand, statistically speaking, is outperforming last years defense and enters the game ranked #2 in scoring defense and #1 in total defense. They have given up just one touchdown in their last 4 games and have allowed just one rushing TD all year. That being said, not having Cooper DeJean locking down one side of the field (or locking down an opponents #1 receiver) could create opportunities for an offense that likes to throw the ball, especially with Isaiah Williams on the field. DeShaun Lee was good in the early season, and might have seen a lot more time had he not gotten hurt, but he’s definitely getting thrown into the fire Saturday.
Advantage - Iowa
Iowa - 47.8 ypp, 39.06% inside the 20, 4.69% TBR
Illinois - 42.6 ypp, 33.33% inside the 20, 4.44% TBR
Enjoy it while you can Iowa fans, we’ve entered the home stretch of Tory Taylor’s college career. Everyone’s favorite punter will don the Black and Gold for the last time in Kinnick on Saturday and it should be a picture perfect day for kicking the ball. Let’s hope he can pin the Illini deep more than once and go out with a bang.
The Illini have a pretty good Aussie punter of their own in Sophomore Hugh Robertson. While he isnt’ quite on Tory’s level, he’s got a 63 yard punt on his resume, and does a pretty good job flipping the field for this Illini team, even if the defense gives it all back pretty quickly.
Advantage - Iowa
Iowa - 77.3% FGM, 100% XPM, 6.8 ppg
Illinois - 69.2% FGM, 91.3 XPM, 4.8 ppg
Drew Stevens hasn’t had the best few weeks here, missing his first attempts against both Northwestern and Rutgers, but he’s bounced back well in both games, putting the game winner into the Bleachers in Wrigley, and hitting 3 FGs against Rutgers. He’s not perfect and likely won’t be in the running for any awards come season end but by the end of his career, he’s going to be another in a long line of great Iowa kickers.
Caleb Griffin has not had a great season for Illinois, though he was 3-3 on FGs last week (3-4 on XPMs, so not a perfect day, but still pretty damn good). He does have a long FG of 53 yards, so the leg is there, but he’s only 4-8 on kicks longer than 30 yards this season, so if Iowa can keep Illinois on the right side of the 20 yard line, he could have a tough day.
Advantage - Iowa
Iowa - 56 ypg, 1 TD
Illinois - 46.7 ypg, 0 TD
In that I do not know who will be returning punts (fingers crossed we see Kaleb Brown back there), it’s hard to say how Iowa’s punt unit will fare come Saturday. The one thing I do know is that we won’t hear the Kinnick faithful shouting “COOOP” in unison anymore, and that makes me incredibly sad. Kaden Wetjen has looked good on kickoffs for the most part, but didn’t have a chance to return anything against Rutgers, and touchbacks just seem to be the norm in college football anymore.
Isaiah Williams has returned 9 punts for 128 yards this season and is a dangerous player in space. On kickoffs, the Illini have a couple of returners (Aidan Laughery and Kenari Wilcher) who are averaging 19+ yards per return, though I’d guess that Drew Stevens will be doing his best to put the ball through the endzone as he so often does.
Advantage - Push (without Coop, who knows what will happen)
Illinois has won two straight squeakers against Minnesota (27-26) and Indiana (48-45 in OT), but were also handled thoroughly in their tilts with Purdue (25 point loss) and Nebraska (13 point loss), so consistency is an issue. I won’t be surprised if Luke Altmayr is on a short leash in Iowa City and if he’s picked off early (or just looks rusty) I won’t be surprised to see Bert go to the bullpen early and see if Paddock can find success a third week in a row. On paper this is a game that Iowa should win, and probably easily, but we’re 0-2 without Cooper DeJean the last two years so a loss is not out of the realm of possibility.
Numbers to Watch
1 - Isaiah Williams is, without a doubt, the best weapon in Bert’s arsenal. Look for Bert to go to him early and often against DeShaun Lee or Jermari Higgins, as neither of them are Cooper DeJean. We could also see him in the run game if Bert tries to attack DeJean’s replacement in the jet sweep game. Williams only has 10 carries for 31 yards this year, but without Coop setting one of the edges, Bert may try to find any way he can to attack that side.
3 - With the #3 now belonging solely to Kaleb Brown, will this be the week that we see the sophomore transfer finally break through? Last week he was featured on 2 jet sweeps, and caught 3 passes for 27 yards and his first TD in an Iowa uniform (which involved making no fewer than 3 Rutgers defenders miss tackles as he spun into the endzone). He’s our most talented receiver (and hopefully punt returner) and, when paired with Seth Anderson, provides a deep threat that opposing defenses will have to respect, provided Deacon can actually connect on a deep ball.
10 - Deacon Hill had his best games as a Hawkeye on Saturday going 20-31, for 232 yards and a TD. He also threw one of the worst interceptions he’s thrown all year. Brian did away with the deep balls for the most part and gave Deac short to intermediate throws that got our skill players the ball in space. He made some really good throws in the 10-20 yard range, and threaded a couple of needles for completions to Ostrenga, not to mention the dime he dropped to Zac Ortwerth over the top. For Iowa to win it’s next two games, we need to see the success Deacon had in the 2nd half against Rutgers.
23 - Reggie Love III had a big day against Indiana last week, and I’m sure that he’s looking to prove that he can go for 100+ against a defense ranked slightly higher than 104th. He didn’t do much against PSU (in his defense not many people do) and got hurt early in the Nebraska game, but he’s got enough speed to get to the outside and is averaging 5.3 ypc so outside of Williams, he’s their best weapon to move the ball.
The line on this one has moved a bit today in the wake of Coop’s injury, with Illinois coming in a 3 point dog. Vegas seems to think there will be a few more points scored this week (O/U at 31.5 as of now), but this is Iowa football, the under is always the smart play. ESPN has Iowa winning this game handily (75.1 - 24.9 in the matchup predictor), and I hope they’re right. But Bret Bielema knows Kirk Ferentz as well as any other coach in this league, and his boys are fighting for bowl eligibility (and their own outside chance at a West division title) so theu’re not going to go down without a fight.
As always, GO HAWKS!!!