116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
The last time Iowa went to Illinois in a football season unaffected by COVID-19, the Hawkeyes walked away with a 63-0 blowout win.
This time, Iowa will be arriving as the underdog. Illinois is a 3.5-point favorite, as of Wednesday evening.
Illinois is off to its best start since 2015, and Iowa has looked far from impeccable through five games. The Hawkeyes are 130th out of 131 FBS teams in total offense, and their defense has outscored the offense in two of the three wins this season.
Here are three keys for Iowa to win its first Big Ten game of the season:
Can Iowa’s defense stop Illinois running back Chase Brown?
Michigan’s Blake Corum put up 133 rushing yards on 29 carries against Iowa last week.
This week, Iowa is facing another talented running back — Illinois’ Chase Brown.
“We’re going against one of the nation’s best running backs,” said Seth Wallace, Iowa’s linebackers coach and assistant defensive coordinator.
Brown has an FBS-best 733 rushing yards through five games.
He has the benefit of a capable offensive line ahead of him, but he can still make plays on his own. He averages 3.5 yards after contact, per Pro Football Focus. (Iowa’s rushing attack, in comparison, averages 2.8 yards per carry, before or after contact.)
“You’ve got to take into consideration that even when things are blocked up and you’ve got it matched up real well, that a guy like that can still do damage to you,” Wallace said.
Does Spencer Petras have adequate time to throw the ball?
Illinois has a reputation of stifling the run this year.
Wisconsin had just 2 rushing yards on 24 attempts against the Illini last week. Even when excluding quarterback Graham Mertz’s five sacks, Wisconsin would’ve only had 31 rushing yards on 19 attempts.
Wisconsin running back Braelon Allen, who had 104 yards on 20 carries last year against Iowa, never ran for more than 3 yards on a carry against Illinois in the 34-10 loss.
Iowa, meanwhile, has struggled to establish the run.
The Hawkeyes will need significant contributions from quarterback Spencer Petras, but he might not have much time to throw the ball against Illinois’ pass rush.
Illinois has a Big Ten-best 3.2 sacks per game, and Iowa has allowed 2.6 sacks per game — the second-worst rate in the Big Ten, with Nebraska being the only worse team.
Third-and-2 or third-and-11?
Iowa has been one of the worst teams in the FBS at converting on third down. At 29.7 percent, the Hawkeyes rank 122nd in the country.
It doesn’t help that Iowa often finds itself in third-and-long situations. It’s a problem that has worsened as the season has progressed.
The average third-down distance to attain a first down has increased from week to week. Against South Dakota State, it was 6.7 yards. Against Michigan, it was 10.4 yards.
Fewer third-down conversions have, of course, led to shorter drives and more time for the offense. Iowa ranks 112th in the country in average time of possession. The more time Iowa’s defense is on the field, the harder it will likely be to stop Brown.
What’s at stake
A win would give Iowa the tiebreaker over Illinois in the hunt for a Big Ten West crown. Bowl eligibility wouldn’t seem like a major concern for a 4-2 Iowa team.
A division title still would technically be possible after a loss, but it’d be highly improbable. No Big Ten team has won its division with three losses since the East-West setup took effect in 2014, and Iowa has No. 3 Ohio State on the schedule after the bye week.
A loss also would be a reminder to not take bowl eligibility for granted. If the Hawkeyes can’t beat Illinois (and fall to 3-3), there aren’t many easier games left on the schedule.
The Hawkeyes would likely have to beat Northwestern and Nebraska and then beat one of the following three teams — Purdue, Minnesota and Wisconsin — to go to a bowl if they don’t win against the Illini.
Illinois is a far cry from No. 4 Michigan, but some of Illinois’ strengths align with what Michigan did to ground the Hawkeyes. This could go down to the last few possessions.
Iowa 14, Illinois 13