IOWA CITY, Iowa — So what does Iowa do for an encore?
After pulling off one of the biggest upsets in program history over No. 3 Michigan last week, Iowa heads to Illinois in search of its seventh win of the season on Saturday (noon ET, BTN).
The Hawkeyes outlasted the Fighting Illini in a tough, physical 29-20 victory last season. What will the 2016 matchup between border rivals look like? Let’s investigate.
When Iowa has the ball
Iowa knows what it wants to do. Illinois knows what Iowa wants to do. The fans on both sides probably know what Iowa wants to do.
The Hawkeyes will look to exploit an Illinois defense that allows 209.7 rushing yards per game. The Iowa offensive line comes in full of confidence after producing a 100-yard rusher against one of the stingiest defenses in the country last week. Akrum Wadley is the heart of the offense. The Hawkeyes goes as he goes, and he’s topped the century mark in three of his last five games thanks to moves like this.
Despite the rushing success, the Hawkeyes often struggles to get out of neutral. They average 17.4 points in league games. The passing game can be non-existent. The easiest way for the Fighting Illini to disrupt the Hawkeyes is if defensive ends Dawuane Smoot and Carroll Phillips get into the backfield.
Phillips leads the Big Ten with 17 tackles for loss and eight sacks. Smoot is a potential first-round NFL draft pick and nearly won the game for Illinois last year with his pass rush. Stopping the Illinois defensive ends is one of the biggest priorities this weekend.
When Illinois has the ball
The Illinois offense is a lot like the Iowa offense. Getting to the end zone can be a chore for both teams. Five times the Fighting Illini scored 17 points or less this season.
Illinois strives for balance but is better at rushing the football. The top three running backs, Kendrick Foster, Reggie Corbin and Ke’Shawn Vaughn, average at least 5.0 yards per carry.
The Iowa defense is coming off its best performance of the year, holding Michigan to 201 total yards. The Hawkeyes will need a strong game from Jaleel Johnson, and the rest of the defensive tackles, against this rushing attack.
Illinois is starting quarterback Wes Lunt, who returns after missing a large portion of the season with a back injury. He’s completed 58.4 percent of his passes for 862 yards, six touchdowns and one interception in six games. Don’t be surprised to see Lunt test Iowa true freshman cornerback Manny Rugamba, who is making his second career start.
The third phase of the game isn’t a strength for Illinois. The Fighting Illini are 12th or worse in the Big Ten in punt return, kickoff return and kickoff coverage. Kicker Chase McLaughlin is 12 of 16 on field goals, including 5 of 8 beyond 40 yards.
Iowa kicker Keith Duncan made the biggest field goal of his life to seal the 14-13 win over Michigan last week. Special teams is a strength for Iowa. The Hawkeyes hold a significant advantage here.
One coach went to a Rose Bowl. One coach won a Super Bowl. One coach twice was a co-Big Ten champion. One coach won three NFC North division titles.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz and Illinois coach Lovie Smith are respected in their profession. Ferentz made his head coaching name in the Big Ten. Smith, in his first season at Illinois, did so in the NFL. The advantage here goes with the coach who isn’t starting a program rebuild.
This is a lot like the Purdue game for the Hawkeyes. Running the football and a few defensive stops is all it may take for a victory. Illinois likely needs a low scoring game where it’s defense, especially the defensive ends, keeps the Iowa offensive line from establishing dominance. Illinois is capable of the big play with Lunt and the running backs. Will there be a letdown for Iowa after the Michigan win? The answer here says no.
Bobby La Gesse’s prediction: Iowa 20, Illinois 10
Scott Dochterman’s prediction: Iowa 23, Illinois 13