Both teams are coming off close wins against the two teams who were probably the preseason favorites in the West, Wisconsin and Nebraska. And now Illinois and Iowa will be battling to maintain a lead in the B1G West.
Run The Ball More
Following Nebraska’s loss to Illinois last week, Mike Riley admitted the Huskers "should’ve run more." Looking at the Illini’s stats, they seem like they have a pretty good rush defense. But against their only 2 decent opponents, North Carolina and Nebraska, they’ve given up 254 and 187 yards on 6.9 and 5.5 yards per rush, respectively.
The Illini, like Wisconsin last week, utilize a 3-4 defense, but they don’t have a Joe Schobert. Nebraska’s rushing attack is very different than Iowa’s…it features more misdirection and zone-read looks, but it found weaknesses in Illinois’ defense that the Hawkeyes should be able to attack. I think the pin and pull outside zone could be pretty effective this week.
To run the ball more, though, Iowa needs to get a back other than Jordan Canzeri more involved. LeShun Daniels hasn’t looked capable of more than a couple carries the last few weeks. Maybe he’ll be more healthy this week and less tentative. Or maybe this is the week Akrum Wadley gets another chance.
Iowa has been excellent converting on third down this year, but struggled last week at Wisconsin, converting just 5 of 15 attempts. They’ll have another big test tomorrow as Illinois is 4th in the country in third down defense, allowing opponents to convert only 21.8% of their 3rd downs. A lot of their success is due to keeping teams off schedule on first and second down and them into forcing third-and-long situations. So the Hawkeyes need to find ways to get in third-and-manageable situations and extend drives.
While I think Iowa will be able to run the ball well, a lot of extending drives is going to fall on C.J. Beathard. He needs to play better than last week and I think he’ll play much better. Though Illinois has been excellent on third downs, it hasn’t really been a result of getting to the quarterback. They are averaging only 1 sack per game and have had 11 hurries in 5 games. That was really Beathard’s problem last week -- he didn’t have any time.
But Beathard will need to be smart with the ball. Illinois' secondary is good this year and they have been ballhawks. While they don’t have a star like Desmond King, they have 7 interceptions, which is tied with Iowa for first in the Big Ten. Taylor Barton is the one to watch out for at safety, with 3 picks on the year.
I also look for Beathard to pick up a few first downs with his feet.
Keep Illinois One Dimensional
Illinois’ leading rusher, Josh Ferguson, is out. That’s a big loss, though not devastating. He only has a few more yards than freshman Ke’Shawn Vaughn so far this season. Vaughn has 325 yards on 75 carries and 2 TDs. He will be the primary running back tomorrow. I don’t expect him to do a whole lot, though -- I think Iowa’s front seven can shut down the Illini rushing attack, which has been mediocre overall. It also helps that they don’t have a mobile quarterback. Wes Lunt is a classic pocket passer -- he has 1 yard on 2 rushes this year and has been sacked 4 times, losing 42 yards.
So Illinois is going to throw the ball, and Lunt has been successful at that this year. He’s completed 58% of his passes and has 8 TDs to 2 INTs. He likes to spread the ball around, too. There are six receivers with double digit catches this year (Iowa has just four).
I expect Iowa’s secondary to play standard Iowa defense -- keep everything in front of them and force Lunt to complete short throws and drive all the way down the field. That’s not something Illinois has really done well this year. Most of their scoring drives feature long passing plays (or really short fields). Bend-don’t-break should work again this week (it worked amazingly well last week), as Illinois has struggled to finish drives, too. Part of that is down to them missing five field goals already, but they have also struggled in the red zone in general, scoring only 12 touchdowns in 22 trips.
Win The 4th Quarter
Even with the two games where Iowa played their backups in the 4th quarter, they have outscored opponents 45-21 in the final quarter of games. The Iowa State game came down to a couple of late scores. The game-winner against Pitt couldn’t have come any later. And even though they didn’t score against Wisconsin in the 4th quarter, they didn’t give up any points, either.
Wes Lunt has been at his worst in the 4th quarter of games and quite a bit worse in the second halves of games in general. It could be that the Illini offense is struggling after defenses make adjustments at halftime, but only two of Lunt’s 8 touchdowns have been in the second half. His completion rate drops to just 42% in the 4th quarter.
However, Illinois has had its share of 4th down success the past couple of weeks. Trailing 0-13 to Nebraska, Illinois had two touchdown drives in the 4th quarter a week ago, including one that started with only 51 seconds left in the game. The week prior, Illinois actually gave up two touchdowns to give Middle Tennessee the lead, but then mounted a game-winning field goal drive.
I think Iowa grinds this game out on the ground in a mostly defensive battle. It won’t be as low scoring as last week as Lunt is a better QB than Stave and the Illini defense isn’t quite as disruptive as the Badger defense. But the result will be the same. Iowa’s defense will shut down the running game and Illinois won’t be able to do enough through the air to win. The Hawkeyes eventually wear down the 3-4 front and put up a late score to make the win feel a little more comfortable.
Final Score: Iowa 21 - Illinois 10
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