Illinois Visits Iowa On Senior Day

Illinois Visits Iowa on Senior Day

It’s Senior Day in Iowa City this Saturday and the Illinois Fighting Illini travel to visit the Hawkeyes for the final home game of the season. Iowa has won seven straight against the Illini, including their comeback win last season in Champaign. The Hawkeyes scored 35 unanswered points to secure the victory a year ago. This year’s Illinois team is different, however. Their star receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe has moved on to the NFL, and the Illini have transitioned to a power formation football team under first-year head coach Bret Bielema. Illinois brings a strong run game to Iowa City. For the second week in a row, the Hawkeyes will have to defend the ground and force the opposition into one dimension. Kirk Ferentz has a great opportunity to win his ninth game this year as Illinois visits Iowa on Senior Day.

Bielema Out With COVID

As announced earlier this week, Bielema will not coach against Iowa after he tested positive for COVID. He will not travel with the team to Iowa City, and assistant coach George McDonald will act as the head coach on Saturday. Bielema’s football history is tied to the Hayden Fry and Ferentz coaching tree. He played under Fry at Iowa in the early 90’s, and coached under both Fry and Ferentz in Iowa City until 2001. His career later took him to Madison, where he coached the Badgers through the 2012 season and won three Big Ten Championships in a row. The last time Ferentz and Bielema met was in 2010, the season Bielema would earn his first Big Ten Title.

Depth Chart Changes

This week, there’s a new receiver listed as the starter in the two-deeps. Keagan Johnson has overtaken Tyrone Tracy Jr. on the outside. The freshman had two drops last week, but impressed with his spectacular catch and run for a touchdown, shedding two would-be tacklers. Alex Padilla remains in the number one spot at quarterback, as he played effectively last week. Arland Bruce IV has also moved up a spot on the depth chart to the number two receiver on the other side. 

Padilla has been comfortable getting the ball to Johnson and Bruce. A large reason for that is their chemistry from spring and fall camp. At the time, all three of them were second stringers. Spencer Petras was taking reps with the ones, so Padilla had the majority of his reps with Johnson and Bruce. The young players connected immediately when Padilla took over, and their results have played a big part in the last two Hawkeye victories. 

Chase Brown Rushing Attack

Under Bielema, the Fighting Illini run plays out of the heavy-set, I-formation. In three of their four wins this season, running back Chase Brown has virtually carried the offense. Against Charlotte, Brown carried the ball 26 times for 257 yards and two touchdowns. It was in this game that he broke onto the scene as a downhill back who can be explosive. His yardage that day was fourth-most in school history for a single game. 

Illinois has played two ranked teams thus far this season, Penn State and Minnesota. Both contests were on the road, and the Illini won both games. In those two games, Brown rushed for 223 yards and 147 yards, respectively, while carrying the ball an average of 40 times per game. With inconsistent quarterback play, Illinois has relied on their backfield for stability. When they can establish the run, they give themselves great opportunities to win games. Iowa will be challenged for the second week in a row with an explosive ground game. 

Entering last weekend, Iowa’s rush defense was allowing under 100 yards per contest. Against Minnesota, they gave up 189 yards and missed several tackles. The Gophers ran the ball 50 times, and were able to wear the defense down and open up the pass later in the game. The difference this week is Illinois doesn’t have a strong pass game. They will rely heavily on the legs of Brown to establish an offense, and he could likely have upwards of 40 carries. 

Illini Defense

Against Big Ten opponents this season, the Illini have only allowed 17 points per game. They gave up a lot of points earlier in the season, but have yet to allow more than 24 points since Big Ten play began. They play a very physical game on defense, and have been successful in keeping their opponents, ranked opponents in particular, at bay. Against ranked teams this year, Illinois is 2-0 and has allowed just six and 14 points in the two games. They also have the 25th ranked tackling defense in the country, and the group is led by a strong secondary. 

In the defensive backfield, Illinois has one of the top safeties in the country. Kerby Joseph has a 90.3 coverage rating and 90 overall defensive rating according to Pro Football Focus. The junior has four interceptions this year and has allowed just nine receptions in coverage. He also leads the nation with three fumble recoveries this year. Joseph is a leader on the back end, and he has an elite ability to close in on the ball. Padilla had success throwing the ball in his first start last week, throwing for 206 yards and a couple of touchdowns. However, he has not yet thrown against a secondary with a top defensive back like Joseph. Neither Northwestern nor Minnesota have a defensive back rated in the top 100. Joseph is number three on that list, and Padilla will need to be careful when looking his way.

Illinois Visits Iowa On Senior Day

The last two wins for Illinois came against top 25 teams on the road. This week, Iowa checked in at number 17, and they will be hosting the Illini inside Kinnick Stadium. This Illinois team on the road has been impressive of late. However, they will be without their leader, Bielema this weekend. 

The Hawkeyes have been improving on offense since the change at quarterback. Padilla did not take a sack against Minnesota, as his mobility allowed him to flush the pocket and keep plays alive. That mobility is essential for the Hawkeyes this year. The offensive line is young and has allowed a lot of quarterback pressure. Iowa’s playbook has not changed much, if at all, with the new quarterback. But it is easy to see the difference it makes when Padilla can scramble. With a win, Iowa can make it eight straight against the Illini, and 13 of 16 in the Ferentz tenure.

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