THREE BIG STORYLINES
In need of protection
The turnover battle was Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters’ biggest talking point when recalling last season’s 19-10 loss at Iowa.
He threw two interceptions and lost a fumble during the setback before the Hawkeyes added injury to insult when safety Geno Stone knocked Peters from the game with a high hit.
Illini offensive coordinator Rod Smith certainly remembers those miscues. And he’s impressing upon Peters and backup quarterback Isaiah Williams just how important it will be for Illinois to take care of the football if it wants to upset No. 24 Iowa.
“Met with the quarterbacks (Monday) morning, and that was the point of emphasis is that we have to take care of the football,” Smith said. “That’s the goal, again, is to make sure we protect the program each and every time we touch the football, and that’ll be a chore because (the Hawkeyes) are good at taking it away as well.”
Iowa has recovered six opposing fumbles and forced 10 interceptions this season while permitting an average of 16.7 points per game.
Asked whether that affects Smith’s desired game plan of getting his running backs rolling before letting Peters air it out in spots, Smith said it merely reinforces that Illinois needs to protect the ball.
“Last year we were able to establish the run game against them, whereas two years ago (in a 63-0 Hawkeyes win) we ran the ball but it was just a train wreck,” Smith said. “We can’t make mistakes against a good team like Iowa.”
Expect the expected
Kirk Ferentz has patrolled the Hawkeyes’ sideline for more than 20 years, since taking over in 1999. It’s an eternity in the current college football landscape.
It’s also led to Ferentz both firmly ingraining his style of play in the Iowa football fabric and getting his athletes to perfect it en route to a 166-106 record and nine bowl game victories.
“Their blueprint for winning is what they’re doing now,” Illinois coach Lovie Smith said. “It’s probably the most traditional football team we’ve played — I’m talking about as far as they huddle (and) they have a fullback on that roster.”
Lovie Smith feels the Hawkeyes had “a couple tough games early” that they could have won — losses to Purdue (24-20) and Northwestern (21-20) — prior to entering their ongoing four-game win streak.
And Lovie Smith also recognizes the onus is on the Illini offense to make big plays considering how effective Iowa’s defense has been.
“They’ve been playing the same defense for a long period of time,” the Illini coach said. “It’s been a long period of time since a team has scored 25 points on them (last on Nov. 23, 2018, versus Nebraska).”
A final hurrah?
This year’s senior day possesses a far different vibe than those of years gone by. Partially because Memorial Stadium will be nearly empty, and partially because the NCAA is permitting an extra year of eligibility for players amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Illini receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe is among the upperclassmen who have a future decision to make about staying at the college level for another year versus moving on.
Saturday’s homecoming festivities — in a non-pandemic timeline — could have included he and brother Daniel Imatorbhebhe, an Illinois senior tight end, being serenaded with cheers and joined by other family members on the Zuppke Field turf.
“I’m just going to kind of go through whatever it is that we have to go through,” Josh Imatorbhebhe said, “and whatever feelings I feel in the moment when it hits me — like, ‘Woah, this could actually be my last time playing at the University of Illinois,’ you know what I mean, a home game — I guess I’ll deal with those feelings then.
“But I guess I’m just so caught up in the game plan, I’m so caught up in the practices and beating Iowa, that I really haven’t been able to truly think of when it actually happens.”
TWO KEY MATCHUPS
Illinois offensive line vs. Daviyon Nixon, Chauncey Golston and Zach VanValkenburg
While the Hawkeyes do a great job of forcing quarterbacks to make poor throwing decisions, they also excel in not allowing the ball to leave an opposing playcaller’s hand to begin with.
The 6-foot-3, 305-pound Nixon at defensive tackle, as well as Golston (6-5, 270) and VanValkenburg (6-4, 270) at the two defensive end spots, are a big reason for that. Golston boasts five sacks, Nixon has compiled four sacks and VanValkenburg has contributed another 31/2 sacks, accumulating 80 lost yards with their combined efforts.
Even with the season-ending injury right tackle Alex Palczewski suffered early in the Nov. 14 win at Rutgers, Illinois’ offensive line has proven steady in its last two games, permitting just two sacks after allowing nine in the first three games.
“Our guys proved (last year versus Iowa) they belonged against a very good defensive football team,” Rod Smith said. “We’ve just got to make sure we clean up some things and execute at times where we didn’t in the past in order for us to have a shot in this game.”
Illinois front seven vs. Tyler Goodson and Mekhi Sargent
The Hawkeyes’ offense was firing on all cylinders during the first three parts of the program’s current four-game win streak, averaging nearly 42 points per game. Namely because of the Hawkeyes’ run game. That production slipped a bit during Iowa’s 26-20 home win against Nebraska on Nov. 27.
The Cornhuskers found a way to slow the 5-foot-9, 209-pound Sargent to the tune of just 18 rushing yards, though he did find the end zone once. The 5-10, 200-pound Goodson, who played high school football at North Gwinnett (Ga.) after Illini brothers Josh Imatorbhebhe and Daniel Imatorbhebhe did as well, amassed 111 yards but needed 30 carries to get there.
Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras does a fine job getting the Hawkeyes down the field, averaging nearly 190 yards passing per game. But his 4:5 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a combined 13 rushing touchdowns from Goodson and Sargent this season indicates who needs to be targeted by Illinois’ defensive linemen and linebackers.
“A lot of guys were banged up after that Nebraska game (on Nov. 21), so guys (are) getting an extra week (after the Ohio State cancellation) to get their bodies right and get their minds right for this Iowa team coming in,” cornerback Tony Adams said. “We’re going to come to play this week.”
ONE STAT THAT MATTERS
The number of rushing yards Illinois hung on Iowa last season, versus the Hawkeyes compiling just 79. The Illini’s last two games included collective rushing outputs of 338 and 285 yards, so the confidence certainly exists for Rod Smith to give the ball to Mike Epstein, Chase Brown or quarterbacks Brandon Peters and Isaiah Williams to see what their legs produce. It’s worth noting, however, that Iowa has allowed an average of 109.3 rushing yards per game this season while permitting 213.5 passing yards per game.
ILLINOIS WILL WIN IF …
… it’s able to hang on to the football and establish a ground game early. Iowa’s offense is far from incapable, but Illinois proved last year it has some answers for that unit — and that’s when it was run by veteran quarterback Nate Stanley and not sophomore quarterback Spencer Petras. The Illini need to play to their offensive strength and have it pay dividends if they’re to wind up on the right side of the scoreboard.
IOWA WILL WIN IF …
… its smothering defense continues to be just that. It’s been nearly two seasons since the Hawkeyes have been truly roughed up by an opposing offense, dating back to allowing 38 points to Purdue on Nov. 3, 2018. Just as Illinois is confident in running the ball, Iowa is confident it can slow down opposing attacks and force them into mistakes. If the Hawkeyes perform similarly to how they did last year versus the Illini, it’s a harbinger of success.
THE PICK …
Illinois 17, Iowa 14
Naturally, this prediction probably leads to a 45-42 outcome. More realistically, this game should be a physical struggle in which each team would be thrilled with breaking off a 5-yard play. The sides will trade punches for 31/2 quarters before James McCourt’s foot provides the decisive blow as Illinois beats an AP Top 25 opponent for the second straight season.