No. 22 Iowa hosts Illinois in first ranked game in 5 years
IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) For the first time in five years, Iowa is ranked.
With a win in Iowa City on Saturday, Illinois could make the Hawkeyes stay in the Top 25 a short one - and serve notice that it's an early contender in the Big Ten West.
The 22nd-ranked Hawkeyes (5-0, 1-0 Big Ten) host the Illini in a matchup that's much more intriguing than it looked like it would be in August.
Iowa has been revitalized by the sweeping changes made by longtime coach Kirk Ferentz, and the biggest improvement has been its defense.
The Hawkeyes have been among the best in league, holding Wisconsin to just a pair of field goals in last week's 10-6 win.
''This `New Me' stuff is really taking legs,'' Ferentz said. ''But the bottom line is, when you've been somewhere for a long time, you see the peaks. You go through the peaks, you go through the valleys and you have a chance to really evaluate things, evolve hopefully and make changes that are going to be productive.''
Illinois (4-1, 1-0) is fresh off a 14-13 win over Nebraska at home last week. The Illini are playing much better defensively, ranking 21st nationally with just 303 yards allowed But the absence of running back Josh Ferguson will put added pressure on quarterback Wes Lunt.
Here are some of the key story lines to follow as Iowa and Illinois face off at Kinnick Stadium for the first time in eight years:
C.J.'S STINKER: After a brilliant start to his first season as the starter, Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard had his first bad game against Wisconsin, throwing for just 77 yards on a windy afternoon without his top receiver, Tevaun Smith. ''They were harassing us, and I thought the one thing that's consistent with him is his poise and his toughness out there,'' Ferentz said. Smith has a knee sprain in will likely be out until Iowa plays Maryland on Oct. 31.
LUNT THE MANAGER: Illinois saw Wes Lunt as a game-changing quarterback when he transferred from Oklahoma State, but interim coach Bill Cubit said he's asking the redshirt junior to be something closer to a game manager right now. Lunt is third in the Big Ten is passing at 221.4 yards a game, but Illinois isn't throwing deep or hitting on big plays nearly as often as it did a season ago. A big reason is the loss of the players who were expected to be Lunt's top targets - Mike Dudek and Justin Hardee. Dudek led Illinois in receiving his freshman year but hasn't played yet as a sophomore after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament. Hardee has a broken foot. ''That's kind of what we're asking Wes,'' Cubit said. ''We're not a big-strike team right now.''
ALL HAIL KING: Iowa cornerback Desmond King earned national recognition this week by being named the Jim Thorpe Defensive Player of the Week for picking off two passes against the Badgers. King is now tied for the national lead with five interceptions, and he's re-energized Iowa's once-languid return game as well.
KE'SHAWN'S TIME? Saturday might be time for Illinois freshman running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn to show why he was such a highly touted recruit. Vaughn rushed for 2,646 yards and a staggering 45 touchdown for Pearl-Cohn High in Tennessee last fall, and he turned down the likes of Ohio State, Notre Dame and others to play for the Illini. Vaughn looked the part against Nebraska, with 98 yards on 24 carries off the bench.
UNDEFEATED: Saturday will be the first time Iowa and Illinois meet with unblemished conference marks in 33 years. The Hawkeyes and Illini were both also 1-0 in 1983, when unranked Illinois thrashed No. 4 Iowa 33-0 at home en route to a berth in the Rose Bowl.
Associated Press writer David Mercer contributed to this report from Champaign, Illinois.
Follow Luke Meredith on Twitter at www.twitter.com/LukeMeredithAP and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/LukeMeredithAP