Iowa Football

Iowa football at Illinois breakdown: Pregame analysis, prediction

Hawkeyes have won 11 of last 12 meetings

Illinois hosts Iowa in Big Ten football Saturday. (The Gazette)
Illinois hosts Iowa in Big Ten football Saturday. (The Gazette)

A closer look at Saturday afternoon’s Big Ten Conference football game between No. 19 Iowa (4-2) and Illinois (2-3) at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Ill. (2:30 p.m., FS1).

Iowa offense

After rushing for 226 yards against Michigan State and 235 against Minnesota, Iowa’s running game has steadily declined in its last two games. It had 175 yards two weeks ago against Penn State and just 143 last week against Nebraska.

The Cornhuskers stacked the box with eight defenders at or near the box, essentially daring quarterback Spencer Petras to beat them. To Iowa’s credit, it stayed with the run game last week and had a better second half.

Everyone knows about the trio of capable backs in Tyler Goodson (fourth in the Big Ten in per-game rushing average), Mekhi Sargent and Ivory Kelly-Martin. Everyone also knows about the very solid offensive line play and the blocking the tight ends and receivers (especially Brandon Smith) are doing.

But Petras must become more consistent. He is 13th in the Big Ten in passing efficiency. At times, he flashes accuracy and pocket awareness and at others none at all.

The weapons are there, with a receiving corps of Smith, Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Nico Ragaini. Petras has favored Ragaini and tight end Sam LaPorta in the target department most of this season. Shaun Beyer also has emerged as a second tight end who can be a weapon both in the passing and running games, with his blocking.

Iowa ranks sixth in the Big Ten in rushing offense and 12th in passing and overall offense. Yet it is fourth in scoring offense (31.8 points per game), with much-improved red zone production the key for that.

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“The run game is at a high point right now,” Smith-Marsette said. “So that’s what we focus on. We’ve been getting the ball out in the running back’s hands, and we’re going to let them showcase their talents. Why shy away from something that’s working? ... When the deep ball comes, it’ll come. Until then, we’re going with what’s working.”

Iowa defense

The Hawkeyes saw their interception streak end last week at 12 consecutive games, though they did recover a pair of fumbles, including one in the final two minutes when Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez was sacked. That secured a 26-20 victory.

Iowa ranks third in scoring defense (16.8 ppg) and total defense (322.8 ypg). It is third in rushing defense and fourth in pass defense.

The line has been good, with Chauncey Golston and Daviyon Nixon having fine seasons at end and tackle, respectively. Zach VanValkenburg has emerged as Golston’s complement on the outside.

Nick Niemann leads Iowa in tackles and has been a steadying influence at linebacker. Seth Benson and Jack Campbell have been solid in the middle, with sophomore Campbell beginning to emerge after missing the first three games with mononucleosis.

He was second on the team in tackles last week against Nebraska.

“Definitely I feel 100 percent,” Campbell said. “I feel like I’m playing my zone. I mean, you can never have a perfect play, so I’m just going to keep focusing on improvement. You can always get better.”

Iowa has not allowed more than 25 points to an opponent in its last 20 games. That includes all six games this season, all 13 last season and the final game of the 2018 season.

Illinois offense

This offense has been uneven but you can’t expect anything else considering the Ilini have played four quarterbacks this season.

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Michigan transfer Brandon Peters started the opener against Wisconsin but was diagnosed with COVID-19 and missed the next three games. Isaiah Williams also was ruled out because of possible coronavirus exposure.

Matt Robinson got the start in Game 2 against Purdue but was injured early. That brought on Coran Taylor, Illinois’ actual fourth-stringer, who started his team’s third game against Minnesota.

Williams returned to start Game 4 against Rutgers and rushed for 192 yards and a touchdown in an Illinois win. Peters returned two weeks ago and led the Illini to a win over Nebraska.

Did you get all that?

Illinois ranks second in the Big Ten, averaging 222.4 yards rushing per game. It rushed for 338 yards on 59 attempts against Rutgers and followed that up with 285 yards on 52 attempts against Nebraska.

In each game, the Illini had two 100-yard rushers: Williams and running back Chase Brown against Rutgers and Brown and back Mike Epstein against Nebraska. Illinois has the worst passing attack in the Big Ten, so Iowa should know what’s coming its way.

Illinois defense

Coach Lovie Smith’s teams with the NFL’s Chicago Bears always were known for takeaways, and Smith has brought that kind of defensive philosophy to this team. Illinois is plus-six this season in that category.

Contrarily, the Illini are 13th in total defense, giving up 448.2 yards per game. They also rank 14th and last in defensive efficiency.

Senior linebacker Jake Hansen is Illinois’ top defensive player. He leads the team in tackles and is first in the nation in tackling grade, according to Pro Football Focus, with the website saying he has not missed a tackle in any of his team’s five games.

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Hansen is tied for the conference lead in forced fumbles, is second in fumble recoveries, fourth in tackles for loss, eighth in interceptions and 10th in tackles.

Final thoughts

Iowa has won four in a row, Illinois two. The Illini had their game last week against Ohio State canceled at the very last minute (Friday night) because of a COVID-19 outbreak at OSU.

Iowa has beaten Illinois six times in a row and has won 11 of the last 12 meetings and 14 of the last 17. The teams last played in Champaign in 2018, a 63-0 Iowa drubbing. Iowa won last year in Iowa City, 19-10.

This game will be way more like last year’s meeting than 2018’s. Illinois is improved, but the statistical matchups point toward another Iowa victory.

Prediction — Iowa 28, Illinois 17

Comments: (319) 398-8259; jeff.johnson@thegazette.com

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