Iowa looks to exploit porous Illini defense, end skid
The Hawkeyes hope to slow the Illini running game and take advantage of one of the nation’s worst defenses to end a three-game skid when Iowa (6-4, 3-4 Big Ten) travels to Champaign on Saturday.
The Hawkeyes, which started the season 6-1 before the losing streak, will put its stumbling offense up against an Illini defense that’s given up an average of 532 yards per game this season.
“As you can well imagine, our first goal as a team is to win,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “And our secondary goals are to score points offensively and stop points on the defensive side. We spend a lot of time evaluating our team, looking at our team, watching them and then week-to-week trying to figure out what gives us the best chance to do those two things.”
Iowa is coming off a 14-10 home loss to Northwestern. Hawkeyes quarterback Nate Stanley threw for 269 yards, but the team only generated 64 yards rushing, including only 3 of 13 on third downs, with an average gain of eight yards.
Illinois coach Lovie Smith said his team has been working hard in practice to address its issues.
“All those things we talked about with tackling, dropped passes, all those things we need to get fixed,” Smith said this week. “It’s now or never. We know what we’re capable of doing.”
WHAT A RUSH
Illinois (4-6, 2-5) makes up in rushing offense what it lacks in defense.
Yet even that bright spot is causing some concern. Star tailback Reggie Corbin left last week’s 54-35 loss to Nebraska with a foot injury. He’s expected to suit up and play Saturday against Iowa, although he may see limited carries. Corbin is crucial to the Illini offensive attack. He has rushed for 1,011 yards this season, averaging 8.9 yards per carry, and has nine touchdowns.
Iowa quarterback Stanley has been dealing with an injured thumb sustained three weeks ago in a loss to Penn State. Ferentz said he is “doing better.”
“I don’t know if Nate’s 100 percent,” Ferentz said this week. “But he’s certainly doing better and doing fine.”
There was some concern the three-game losing streak might be affecting Stanley, which he brushed off during Tuesday’s press conference.
“I’m just making sure that I stay positive and help my teammates out as much as I can,” Stanley said. “There’s always room to do more.”
Illinois quarterback AJ Bush is a marquee rusher, but his lackluster passing game has garnered some criticism. In Saturday’s loss to Nebraska, Bush was 18-of-25 passing for 216 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. He rushed 14 times for 127 yards and two touchdowns.
Many believe Iowa will receive a bowl bid of some sort, especially if they can beat Illinois. Six wins is generally the lowest threshold for postseason bowl invitations. Hawkeye fans will look for more playing time for tight end Noah Fant, who had a diminished role in the loss to Northwestern.
The road is much tougher for the Illini, which needs to win against Iowa and Northwestern for any chance.
ALL IOWA LATELY
Iowa has dominated the series with Illinois the past decade. The Hawkeyes have won nine of the past 10 games by an average of nearly 17 points.