Iowa offense vs. Illinois defense
The Fighting Illini are sort of but not entirely rebuilding on defense. The Illini had to replace both safeties (SS Kevin Mitchell and FS Justin Harrison) and middle linebacker J Leman) and the unit has experienced a dropoff.
The Illini are ninth in the Big Ten in scoring defense (26.9 ppg) and in rushing defense (152.4 yards a game). Those are increases of 5.1 points and 20.2 yards from last season’s numbers. Leman led the Illini in tackles and was second in tackles for loss. Mitchell was third in tackles and led the Illini with five interceptions and 16 passes broken up. Harrison was third in tackles and broke up eight passes.
Senior Brit Miller moved from the weakside to replace Leman and is the Illini’s most productive defender. At safety, Donsay Hardeman is the third strong safety the Illini have tried this season and the junior seems to have settled in. Free safety Travon Bellamy is learning on the job after sitting out last season with two shoulder surgeries.
The Illini have a solid defensive line with senior end Derek Walker (6-4, 270) and DT Josh Brent (6-2, 315) leading the way. Walker has 22 career tackles for loss. Brent was a highly touted recruit in his first season as starter.
But the Illinois defense centers on playmakers Miller, linebacker Martez Wilson and cornerback Vontae Davis.
Miller, a four-year starter, leads the Big Ten with 10.5 tackles a game, seventh in the Football Bowl Subdivision. He’s also averaging 1.8 tackles for loss a game, fifth in the nation. He’s active in every way a linebacker needs to be — five sacks, five pass breakups and an interception.
Wilson (6-4, 246) is an amazing athlete who has 5.5 tackles for loss. He’s called “Freak 2” by his teammates and runs a 4.4-second 40-yard dash. Davis covers a ton of ground with seven pass breakups. He also has 5.5 tackles for loss.
Iowa’s offense is coming off its best performance of the season in its 38-16 victory over Wisconsin.
Running back Shonn Greene has captured the nation’s attention. He’s third in FBS with 144.2 yards a game. Greene and Iowa’s offensive line have played with tremendous consistency this season. Greene is one of only two backs in the nation who’s logged 100-yards in all eight contests this season. Before you dismiss this element as a checkmark for the Hawkeyes remember that Illinois has held three opponents to less than 100 rushing yards this season — Michigan, Minnesota and Louisiana-Lafayette, which currently leads the nation in rushing with 311.7 yards a game.
As sophomore quarterback Ricky Stanzi gains experience, Iowa’s points have gone up. In his first two starts, Stanzi turned the ball over five times and the Hawkeyes scored 17 and 13 points. In the last two weeks, Stanzi has had no turnovers and the Hawkeyes have scored 45 and 38 points.
Guard Seth Olsen (ankle) and tight end Tony Moeaki (calf) might try to play today.
Iowa defense vs. Illinois offense
The key to offensive coordinator Mike Locksley’s offense is quarterback Juice Williams, who’s game has grown by leaps and bounds this season.
As a sophomore last year, Williams was a brilliant runner (755 yards, seven touchdowns) and a below-average passer (134.0 yards per game, 12 interceptions). This year, Williams has flipped that stat. The 6-2, 233-pounder leads the Big Ten in passing (271.1) and total offense (331.0). And he’s still running with the ball, 11th in the conference with 479 yards and five TDs. In the Illini’s two losses in the last three games, Williams does have four interceptions, but he also leads the Big Ten, by a wide margin, with 18 TD passes.
The Illini are still getting yards, but the balance has shifted this year. In ‘07, Illinois went to the Rose Bowl on the legs of bruising tailback Rashard Mendenhall, who turned pro early and was drafted in the first round by the Steelers. With Mendenhall in the backfield last season, the Illini rushed for 256.8 yards a game. This year, it’s a respectable 190.2, but still a dropoff.
Mendenhall’s replacement for the first six games was Daniel Dufrene. The 5-11, 201-pound junior is averaging an impressive 5.6 yards per carry and 67.4 yards per game but has no rushing touchdowns and isn’t the power runner that Mendenhall was. The Illini appear to have found their power runner in freshman Jason Ford. He made his first start two weeks ago against Indiana and rushed 19 times for 172 yards and three touchdowns. Last week, Ford had 12 carries for 47 yards against Wisconsin.
Arrelious Benn was the Illini’s most dangerous receiving threat last season and that hasn’t changed. The 6-foot-2, 214-pounder leads the team in receptions (46) and receiving yards (740) and is tied for the team lead in touchdown receptions (three).
The offensive line includes three seniors, a junior and true freshman right tackle Jeff Allen, the first true frosh to start on Illinois’ O-line since 1997.
ESPN college football analyst Doug Flutie opined this week that Iowa is an average team riding the fumes of RB Greene’s brilliance.
That’s a good, strong opinion, but it’s not quite on point. The Hawkeyes’ defense is fifth in the nation and second in the Big Ten in scoring defense, allowing just 11.5 points a game. Iowa’s pass efficiency defense is also fifth in the nation and second in the league at 98.0. What that means is it’s hard for a quarterback to get comfortable and be accurate against Iowa. Iowa is also eighth in the nation in red zone defense (66.7 percent), which means it’s hard to score against Iowa.
Nine different Hawkeyes have intercepted at least one pass this season. The Hawkeyes now have at least one takeaway in 28 of its last 30 games. After starting the Big Ten season minus-5 in turnover margin, the Hawkeyes are now plus-5.
Illinois is last in the Big Ten in kick coverage, allowing 23.1 yards a return. Punter Anthony Santella is averaging a modest 39.3 yards per punt, the only Big Ten punter at less than 40 yards a kick. Kicker Matt Eller has missed four of 13 field-goal attempts, a 69.2 percentage, but he is 5 of 6 from 40-plus and has made his last three, including a 47-yarder last week in Madison.
It’s time to recognize true freshman kicker Trent Mossbrucker. The Iowa freshman leads the Big Ten in field goal percentage, 10 of 11 for 90.9 percent. He’s connected on his last eight attempts. Iowa’s kick coverage is second in the Big Ten, allowing just 19.0 yards a return. This will be a good matchup. Illinois has a great kick return duo in Benn (9th in the conference at 20.8 yards on 13 returns) and true freshman A.J. Jenkins, who’s third in the league with 24.2 yards per return including a 96-yard TD.
With the Illini’s victory at Michigan this year, Illinois coach Ron Zook is now only the second coach in the Big Ten to record a victory at the “Big House” and Ohio State’s “Horseshoe.” The Illini won at OSU last season. The only other active Big Ten coach with that on his resume is Penn State’s Joe Paterno. Only 13 coaches in Big Ten history have pulled that off, an even more impressive stat. Zook’s Illini have revenge in their hearts. They lost to 2-4 Iowa at Kinnick last year. Benn even dropped the “hate” word on Iowa this week. This game has been circled by Illinois, which has played 14 true freshmen this season.
Credit offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Ken O’Keefe for the care and feeding of sophomore quarterback Ricky Stanzi. Stanzi was an afterthought last season. This year, he’s the third most efficient Big Ten quarterback with a 145.3 efficiency. Four games into the season, Iowa coaches had to go from junior Jake Christensen to Stanzi. That’s the first time a sitting Iowa quarterback had been replaced since 1999.
In two weeks, the Hawkeyes have what look to be an ultra-sexy matchup with Penn State at Kinnick. A loss today would sort of shoot a hole in that.