Nothing has been easy for Iowa football this year. Despite having one of the worst offenses in the FBS, weathering injuries to their starting quarterback and two NFL-caliber tight ends, and dealing with a season-long suspension of a three-year starter at defensive tackle, Iowa has clawed its way to an 8-2 record, sole possession of first place in the Big Ten West, and a #16 college football playoff ranking. If Iowa can win one of its next two games, they will punch their ticket to Indianapolis.
Now, in a season full of adversity, Iowa must weather another significant challenge if it hopes to win the West. Hawkeye star Cooper DeJean suffered an injury in practice this week that will keep him off the field until the bowl game at the earliest, which will deprive Iowa of an elite defensive back, explosive punt returner, and even an occasional contributor on offense. For Iowa to beat Illinois at home and clinch its spot in the conference championship game, the Hawkeyes will need to find a way to overcome the loss of the player who may have done more than anyone else on the roster to contribute to winning this season.
Here are a few key factors to watch for in this week’s game:
1. Can Iowa contain a dangerous Illini passing attack?
There would never be a good time in the season for DeJean to go down to an injury, but days before the Hawkeyes are set to play the best wide receiver duo they will face in the regular season is far from an ideal scenario. Junior Isaiah Williams (no, not THAT Isaiah Williams) leads the Big Ten in receptions with 68 and trails only Marvin Harrison Jr. for the most receiving yards with 893. Meanwhile, his running mate Pat Bryant has emerged as an excellent redzone weapon, using his 6’3 frame to haul in six touchdown catches this season. Bryant and Williams pose a dangerous combination of size and athleticism, and even their third receiver (Casey Washington) has emerged as a dependable player during his senior season.
While watching DeJean match up against Williams would have made for excellent viewing, the Hawkeyes will have to find a way to contain Illinois’ aerial attack in his absence. Jermari Harris has been solid playing across from DeJean this season and had maybe his strongest game of the year against Rutgers last week but has occasionally been beaten in coverage throughout the year. Meanwhile, freshman Deshaun Lee played well in relief of Lee during the first two games this season, but missed several contests due to injury and was targeted by Iowa State with some success near the end of the Cy-Hawk game in Week 2. Iowa will need their cornerbacks to hold up in coverage against Illinois’ talented receivers and avoid the fate the Hawkeyes suffered when DeJean went down early in the game against Nebraska last season: allowing nine catches for 165 yards and two touchdowns to Trey Palmer.
However, all hope is not lost for the Hawkeyes. Illinois has thrown eleven interceptions on the season (more than any Big Ten team not named Nebraska), and quarterback Luke Altmyer’s tendency to stare down receivers and throw the ball into tight coverage could come back to bite the Ilini. Meanwhile, Illinois has struggled mightily in pass protection, allowing 3.7 sacks per game, including five sacks against both Minnesota and Maryland and six sacks in losses to both Purdue and Kansas. Iowa only has 19 sacks on the season and has relied more on its stifling coverage than an aggressive pass rush to disrupt opposing passing games. However, if Iowa can manage to force consistent pressure (especially if it comes from the Hawkeyes’ front four), they should have a chance to throw the Illinois passing game off its rhythm and create fewer opportunities for Altmyer to exploit any advantages his receivers manage to gain over Iowa’s cornerbacks.
2. Can Iowa capitalize on Illinois’ inevitable mistakes?
Illinois’ penchant for throwing interceptions is hardly the only self-imposed mistake the team regularly suffers from. The Illini have committed the second most turnovers in the conference this year with 19, in addition to surrendering more penalty yards per game (68.6) than any Big Ten team. Only nine teams have surrendered more penalty yards than Illinois’ 686 yards this season, which is more than double the number of penalty yards assessed to the Hawkeyes (266).
Unless Illinois channels head coach Bret Bielma’s bizarre hatred for his alma mater into playing its most disciplined game of the season, Iowa is likely to benefit from several Illini miscues on Saturday. Iowa’s raucous home crowd contributed to Rutgers committing six pre-snap penalties last week and should be even more motivated to make their presence felt in a game that could decide the divisional race. Meanwhile, while Iowa’s defense has not forced turnovers at nearly the same rate as many of their recent campaigns, they have shown a knack for creating takeaways at opportune times, including forcing an interception against Rutgers that functionally iced the game for the Hawkeyes.
For Iowa to secure a victory against Illinois, they will need to take advantage of the opportunities the Illini give them with their self-imposed errors. If Illinois gets behind the chains thanks to an offensive penalty, the Hawkeyes must use that to generate a three-and-out. Defensive penalties must be used to extend drives and create scoring opportunities, and Illini turnovers need to result in Hawkeye points. Given Iowa’s heavily documented offensive struggles and inability to rely on Cooper DeJean’s ability to create magic in the return game, the Hawkeyes will have to capitalize on every opportunity they have to move the ball, put up points, and get their defense off the field to help secure the win.
3. Can the Hawkeyes impose their will on the ground?
Illinois has struggled defensively this year, and has particularly had a difficult time slowing down opposing run games. The Illini are allowing the second most rushing yards per game among Big Ten teams with 154.30 and have allowed fifteen times as many rushing touchdowns as Iowa has this year (no, that is not a typo). No team in the conference has allowed more runs of 10+ yards than Illinois (51), including giving up 256 rushing yards to Florida Atlantic and 262 yards against Kansas. Iowa’s rushing game has slowly improved throughout the season and is coming off a solid 179-yard performance against Rutgers, and the Hawkeyes shockingly lead the conference in rushing plays that go for 50+ yards with four this year. Between Leshon Williams, Kaleb Johnson, and Jaziun Patterson, Iowa has the tools to control the game with their ground attack and create the kind of easy opportunities that led to quarterback Deacon Hill having his best collegiate game last week (20-31 for 223 yards).
However, Iowa’s ability to run the ball successfully will likely come down to whether the offensive line can block defensive tackle Jer’Zhan Newton, a future first-round draft pick and an absolute game-wrecker on the interior. Newton is a disruptive force who leads all FBS interior defensive players with 39 QB pressures and has wreaked havoc on opposing guards and centers while playing both the run and pass. Even when Newton does not manage to break into the backfield, he excels at creating openings for linebackers Seth Coleman and Dylan Rosiek to shut down opposing running plays. Iowa’s interior line has gotten better as the year has progressed, but the Hawkeyes are dealing with several lingering injuries to significant contributors upfront. Newton is the kind of player who can singlehandedly destroy offensive gameplans if opposing offensive linemen cannot find a way to keep him in check. If Iowa struggles to contain him, it could make for a difficult day for the Hawkeye running game and may force Deacon Hill to prove that last week was not an aberration if Iowa wants to move the ball.