Iowa Football

Illinois at No. 17 Iowa: The Big Analysis

Lovie Smith grad transferred the Fighting Illini to a bowl game, kind of incredible if you think about it

No. 17 Iowa hosts Illinois this Saturday at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City. (The Gazette)
No. 17 Iowa hosts Illinois this Saturday at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City. (The Gazette)

When the Hawkeyes left Illinois and Memorial Stadium last November, you could hear the Fighting Illini band members make postgame plans.

It was that quiet. Of course, 63-0 will send even the most hopeful band member into their phone. The crowd ranged in the 14,000s. The winning margin was the largest of Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz’s 21 seasons and Iowa’s largest since 66-0 over Northern Iowa in 1997.

You wondered about Illinois. Like what happened? How soon can the school launch head coach Lovie Smith into space?

So, what’s your favorite “redemption arc” story? This would fit three or four “Harry Potter” characters. “Star Wars?” Does anyone have a better redemption arc than Darth Vader?

Maybe Smith does.

Not only are the Illini (6-4, 4-3 Big Ten) bowl eligible, they’re “good bowl” eligible. Who knows? A win Saturday could elevate the Illini over No. 17 Iowa (7-3, 4-3) in bowl executives’ eyes. Probably not, but that doesn’t take any of the wind out of the fact that Illinois has beaten Wisconsin this season and Iowa hasn’t.

How often in college football do you see a team put its foot down and say “no more” and really mean it? Not very often.

Actual Fighting Illini

1. Linebacker duo — Smith was an NFL defensive guru before his run with the Chicago Bears ended and his Illinois campaign began. Linebackers can make defenses go, and Smith is blessed with Jake Hansen and Dele Harding.

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Hansen is having a first-team all-Big Ten season. The 6-1, 225-pounder leads the nation in forced fumbles (seven) and is fourth in recoveries (three). That’s the most forced fumbles for a Big Ten player since 2011. Harding leads the Big Ten in tackles per game (12.0). He had 16 tackles in the Illini’s victory over Wisconsin.

2. Takeaway machine — Yes, the Illini’s impressive turnover margin of plus-14 is a pretty big reason why they’re enjoying their first four-game winning streak since Ron Zook’s 2011 team began the season 6-0.

Illinois leads the nation in turnover margin and takeaways (26). It also leads the nation in defensive TDs (six) and forced fumbles (17).

Illinois pulled three turnovers out of Wisconsin to help turn its season around. In the last four games, Illinois is plus-9 in turnover margin.

 

The Illini’s 10 interceptions are good, above average, but the 16 fumble recoveries are otherworldly. They lead the Big Ten by seven here (four teams are tied for second with nine). So, if you think about it, the Illini are doing this the hard way, through fumbles. That says you can’t have a casual moment carrying or throwing the ball.

3. The long haul — Running back Reggie Corbin began his career in 2016. He’s walked around the Big Ten for the last three seasons known as “hey, that one guy who can really run the ball for Illinois.” Four years and the 5-10, 200-pounder’s legs are still churning.

Corbin rushed for 1,085 yards last season and comes into Saturday’s game with 2,292 career rushing yards. At 606 yards, this is his second-best season and he’s going to get a bowl game to put up some numbers.

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It’s not just Corbin. Running back Dre Brown (5-11, 210) is showing up after a pair of ACL tears set back his career. He has 461 yards on 83 carries. Corbin averages 5.22 per carry; Brown is at 5.55 per.

This is a drilled rushing attack. The Illini returned four starters from the O-line last season.

4. Better building through the portal — If continuity is considered a strength in football — and it is — the Illini are flying in the face of that theory.

Smith and staff added five graduate transfers from Power Five schools in 2019, including former Michigan QB Brandon Peters and former USC defensive end Oluwole Betiku Jr., who still is fourth in the Big Ten with eight sacks even after missing the last three games with an injury.

Ten transfers have joined the Illini in the last two offseasons and eight have played in 2019. These are players who once were coveted. USC has been particularly helpful with Betiku, wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe (nine TDs) and wide receiver Trevon Sidney (one TD before he was lost for the season after week 5).

Smith grad transferred the Illini into a bowl and beyond.

 

5. Relevant numbers — Peters has engineered two game-winning drives in the final seconds during this winning streak. Against Wisconsin, it was nine plays and 32 yards for a field goal. Against MSU, it was 13 plays, 75 yards and a TD. ... Kicker James McCourt is one of three FBS kickers with three 50-plus yard field goals. He’s the only one who’s perfect from that distance (3 of 3). ... This is the first time since 2007 that Illinois has won three road games in a season (at UConn, at Purdue and at Michigan State).

Still Fighting Hawkeyes

1. “Anytime you make something out of nothing” — Yes, true freshman running back Tyler Goodson got the start last week against Minnesota. He checked in with 94 yards and a TD on 13 carries. The TD run ... you want that. Goodson wasn’t used as much in the passing game, but the passing game last week was basically whittled to two players.

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Forget everything you saw and/or thought about Goodson vs. Minnesota and take this quote from Kirk Ferentz that says exactly what you and everyone else saw.

“Anytime you make something out of nothing, I don’t know how many yards we had that play blocked for, maybe 2, and he converted it into a touchdown,” Ferentz said. “Anytime you can do that, run or pass, that’s a good thing.”

 

The takeaway: Made something out of nothing. That’s what’s been missing from the Iowa running game. Maybe it’s back. The easiest thing to say about a true freshman’s performance is “Need to see it consistently.” It’s true, but that was a heckuva first start.

2. Targets + Brandon Smith — We talked a little about targets in the victory over Minnesota. It went like this: Tryone Tracy and Ihmir Smith-Marsette eight apiece, Nico Ragaini three and single targets for tight ends Nate Wieting and Sam LaPorta. Quarterback Nate Stanley threw the ball away as many times as he targeted the tight ends.

Last week was for playmakers. Iowa attacked aggressively in the first half, building a 20-6 lead. That was Tracy and Smith-Marsette coming through. Why not do that all of the time? Actually, a better way to ask this is why wait? Of course, it’s easy to say that here.

The targets could change this week. Junior Brandon Smith has worked in practice and could play. Smith is a formidable talent, with 33 catches for 407 yards. In three years, he’s gone from nervous kid to a 6-3, 220-pound physical wide receiver who knows how to use his body and get the ball. Maybe Smith’s return could boost a team that is facing a tricky opponent that’s suddenly awaken.

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3. Run defense — If Illinois is going to win at Kinnick for the first time since 1999, how many rushing yards will it need? Wisconsin ran it up with 300 yards on the Hawkeyes. Michigan (120) and Penn State (177) had enough to beat Iowa. Does Illinois have this super power?

Corbin and Brown can run. That is an experienced offensive line. Yes, defensive end A.J. Epenesa pulled in the headlines with the finishing move vs. the Gophers, but senior middle linebacker Kristian Welch’s return to the lineup tied things together nicely at the line of scrimmage, with the Hawkeyes holding Minnesota to just 63 yards (2.1 per carry). Few offenses can handle being that one dimensional.

Welch, who missed three games with a stinger injury, finished with 11 tackles, a sack and 1.5 tackles for loss. He also had a pass breakup. He’ll be busy again this week.

4. Riley Moss’ wild career keeps running — As a true freshman last season, Riley Moss had two picks in what turned out to be a really big win at Minnesota. He had a rough learning-type day a few weeks later at Purdue. Moss didn’t hit the lineup on a regular basis again until Purdue this year. He got the ultimate revenge with a pick. Last week against Minnesota, Moss shut the door with his second pick of the season, which is tied for the team lead.

Moss’ career so far — he’s just a sophomore — has been a study in how defensive backs can potentially be exposed every down. You shrivel and go home or you stay and improve and get after it.

“There’s a lot of pressure, but there’s a lot of time for opportunity,” Moss said. “You can come down with picks and make some plays, that’s the exciting part about playing against a team that passes. They can throw it over your head, but you can make plays. That’s the exciting part.”

5. Relevant numbers — Can Iowa just run against Illinois? Probably not. The Hawkeyes have averaged 3.8 yards per carry in November. That’s better, but it’s not an automatic. But hey, maybe it is Goodson time. ... Kirk Ferentz has 95 Big Ten wins, tying Joe Paterno for fifth in Big Ten history. He’s one shy of tying Hayden Fry. ... Iowa’s senior class has a 32-17 record and is 13-5 in games with a trophy on the line (bowl and rivalry).

Prediction

Iowa 27, Illinois 17

Classic KF: Two-score lead and totally milking it in the second half.

Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

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