The Illinois Fighting Illini have allowed just three touchdowns this season. None of them have been inside Memorial Stadium in Champaign. Visitors have scored just nine total points when traveling to Illinois this season. Saturday, Iowa will play inside that stadium against one of the top defenses in the nation. Head coach Bret Bielema and the Illini are coming off a dominant road victory in Madison, against Bielema’s former team. In what will be a season-defining game for Iowa, a win at Illinois is critical for bowl eligibility. Iowa’s offense struggled against Michigan last week, and will get another difficult test, this time on the road under the lights.
The Illini Defense
Illinois’ 3.81 yards per play allowed this year is second to only Iowa in the Big Ten, and fourth nationally. Where the Illini have been extremely effective is red zone attempts. In 66 total drives defended this season, only six ended inside the Illini red zone. Of those six, just one was converted for a touchdown, two others were field goals, and the others resulted in no points. Conversely, Iowa has reached the red zone just nine times in 62 attempts. The numbers are not favorable for the Hawkeyes this week in red zone opportunities.
An interesting way to look at Illinois’ defense is through their defensive available yards percentage. Available yards percentage is determined based on drive yards earned by a team related to their total available yards. Total available yards is the yardage summation to the goal line from each drive’s starting field position. Illinois’ defense is fourth nationally in defensive available yards percentage this season. They have given up just 26.7% of the yards available to their opposition. This has translated directly to Illinois being able to force short drives, and punts, and increase their time of possession. Bielema’s team is seventh nationally in time of possession and has forced 36 punts, third most in the country.
The Hawkeyes have punted 34 times on the season and rank 109th in the FBS in offensive available yards percentage at just 35.6%. In a lot of ways, this defense is going to be an even tougher test than last week. A path to victory for Iowa will need to come from forcing turnovers and capitalizing on short fields if the defense presents those opportunities. Iowa’s inability to move the ball consistently on offense will be very evident against Illinois unless they can do these things defensively.
Iowa’s Path to Victory
Contain the Run
Iowa did a solid job in containing Michigan running back Blake Corum last week. He averaged his least amount of yards per rush this season. However, the Wolverines were able to beat Iowa’s defense in other ways. This week, Iowa faces another top running back in the country. The top running back in the Power Five, actually. Chase Brown has 766 rushing yards this season and leads all power conferences with 146.6 per game. He has averaged 24 touches per game with an average of 6.11 yards per carry. Limiting big plays in the run game will be essential. Brown has breakaway speed and can wear a defense out over the course of a game. Iowa’s success begins with containing the run game and forcing passing downs. There, the Hawkeyes will have an opportunity to do what they do best – force errant throws and capitalize with an interception.
Positive Turnover Margin
The Illini have turned the ball over nine times this season, with two interceptions and seven fumbles. If the Hawkeye defense is known for anything, it’s for their ability to force turnovers. They have forced seven on the season, five interceptions, and two fumble recoveries. They didn’t force any against Michigan, but in the previous two matchups, Iowa had four takeaways that resulted in 21 points.
Dating back to the beginning of 2021 in games where Iowa has forced at least one turnover and committed one turnover or less, they are 10-1. The lone loss came to Michigan in the lopsided Big Ten Title game. If the Hawkeyes can win the turnover battle against Illinois this weekend while taking care of the football, they will be in a good position to get control of the game. However, given the offense’s stagnant play this year, those turnovers are going to need to almost certainly translate into points. Whether it comes as a defensive touchdown or an advantageous field position, Iowa will need to force turnovers and capitalize on them consistently to have a chance to defeat Illinois.
Top Defenses Iowa, Illinois Battle in Champaign
In non garbage time possessions this season, the Illinois defense has allowed just 0.86 points per drive, good for third best in the country. Further, when Illinois pins their opponents inside their own 20, they haven’t allowed a single point. The Hawkeye defense is right behind them, allowing just over one point per drive, seventh best in the nation. This game is going to come down to who turns the ball over and what kind of field position they can earn defensively.
Season-Defining Game for Iowa at Illinois
This week, the model makes Illinois a 9.8-point favorite with a points total of 33.7. With these top defenses in Iowa and Illinois, a low score is very likely. It’s difficult to see a path for Iowa to get more than 20 points on the board without the help of defensive scores. The Hawkeyes have won eight straight games in this matchup dating back to 2014 and are 13-1 since 2003. The lone loss came in Champaign in 2008 where they turned the ball over four times. Those kinds of turnover mistakes cannot happen if Iowa wants to come home with a fourth win this season. Saturday night under the lights will be a season-defining game for Iowa against Illinois. The outcome will play a huge role in bowl eligibility going into the second half of the season.