116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Let’s just say it right now. For a football team whose offense has been offensive, but in a bad way, this doesn’t appear to be an ideal matchup.
The Iowa Hawkeyes face the nation’s best defense Saturday night. At least in one statistical category.
Illinois is allowing an average of 8.4 points in its first five games, the fewest of any team in the FBS. The Fighting Illini are relinquishing just 228 yards a game, which ranks third nationally.
Everyone knows the struggles Iowa has had in moving the football this season. This matchup screams “Yikes” from that standpoint.
The Hawkeyes and Illinois kick off at 6:30 Saturday night at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.
“We're taking steps in the right direction, and there's a whole lot of growth from where we were a while ago,” said Illinois defensive lineman Keith Randolph Jr. “I just want to keep getting better, the team to keep getting better, and the defense to keep getting better, so we can keep this train rolling in the right direction.”
Iowa rushed for 172 yards in last season’s 33-23 win at Kinnick Stadium, but Illini opponents this season have found running the football especially problematic. Illinois leads the Big Ten in rushing defense, giving up just 70 a game.
Wyoming rushed for 182 yards in the season opener, but had just 30 passing. Thus Illinois won the game, 38-6.
Since then, no one has been able to reach the 100-yard mark rushing against the Illini. Wisconsin had just 2 last week in Illinois’ 34-10 blowout win in Madison.
“Well, when you watch them, there's a lot of guys up there (on the line of scrimmage),” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said. “You'll see that right off the bat. It just makes it a little tougher to create run lanes. Their linebackers fill pretty well. They know where to get and where to fit, and I think the biggest thing is they're very well-coached team-wise, and that's true no matter what your defensive style may be or whatever your scheme may be. But you're going to see more guys up on the line than you would typically.”
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Illinois has been able to get to the quarterback, leading the Big Ten with 16 sacks. Randolph, fellow lineman Jer’zhan Newton and freshman outside linebacker Gabe Jacas have three each.
The Illini also have been opportunistic, with a league-high 13 takeaways: eight interceptions and five fumble recoveries. Senior defensive back Kendall Smith has a team-best three picks in his first season of real playing time.
He’s primarily been a special teams guy in his career.
“We knew we had some momentum from last year," he said. "We started to figure out our identity and how we're going to be, so we knew that we had the potential to do great things this year. It was just a matter of going out and doing it."
Ferentz gave plaudits to defensive coordinator Ryan Walters, who was at Missouri before joining second-year head coach Bret Bielema’s staff in Champaign.
“The key thing I think is they're well-coached and they know where to be, when to be there, that type of thing,” Ferentz said. “So they don't leave big seams for you (rushing wise), and it's hard to create them. That's going to be a hard challenge, just trying to, I'm sure they'll have a wrinkle or two, but they pretty much are what they are, which most good teams are like that.
“That's the challenge ... I only bring them up because of the statistics, where they rank statistically. The challenge is to try to find a way to block them, basically is what it gets down to. And that's easier said than done. Nobody has done it very well.”
Ferentz and players insist strides are being made with an offense that continues to be among the nation’s worst. Iowa is 130th out of 131 teams in total offense, its 242.2-yard average just 0.4 better than Colorado State.
By the way, if you remember, Bielema missed last year’s game between these teams after contracting COVID-19. He is, of course, an Iowa graduate and former assistant coach for the Hawkeyes.
“I have said several times this week that I remember sitting on my couch watching this game last year,” Bielema said. “I couldn’t do anything. It wasn’t (tough) because I wasn’t at Iowa, it was because I wasn’t here with my family, I wasn’t with the University of Illinois. That was a hard moment. I’ve never done that before in my career, and I don’t want to do it again.
“This is a different game and a different set of scenarios. You kind of play to the moment.”
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