IOWA CITY (AP) — For the first time in nine years, Iowa is 0-2 in the Big Ten.
What a perfect time for the Hawkeyes to host Illinois.
Iowa (3-2, 0-2) couldn’t have asked for a better situation ahead of its bye week than facing the Fighting Illini (2-2, 0-1) on Saturday — at least on paper.
The Hawkeyes are 12th in the Big Ten in rushing offense, but Illinois is last in the league in rushing defense. The Illini are also last in the conference in scoring at 17.8 points per game, while Iowa is allowing less than 13 points a game at home.
The Hawkeyes throttled Illinois 28-0 in Champaign a year ago and enter Saturday’s game as an 18-point favorite despite averaging 14.5 points a game in the Big Ten. But Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz wasn’t too pleased with how his team looked in last weekend’s 17-10 loss at Michigan State.
“Just overall developing a kind of confidence and grit it takes to be successful home or away (is key). But that was our first away game in Big Ten, and I don’t think (we) handled the whole thing very well,” Ferentz said.
Illinois has also dropped two straight, by an average of 23 points, to South Florida and Nebraska, prompting coach Lovie Smith to give quarterback Jeff George Jr. a shot at starting against the Hawkeyes.
Here are some of the key factors to consider as these border rivals prepare to meet at Kinnick Stadium:
Next Jeff up
George’s father Jeff was the first pick in the NFL draft out of Illinois and had a long career as a quarterback in the pros. But the younger George has completed 50 of 118 passes with five TDs and seven interceptions in his career. “He’s next in line,” Illinois coach Lovie Smith said. George replaces Chayce Crouch, who threw one TD pass in four games this season.
Iowa’s defense shines
Lost amid Iowa’s two-game skid is the fact that its defense has played well. The Hawkeyes have allowed 19 points a game in losses to Penn State and Michigan State and are among seven Big Ten teams who enter the weekend with under 20 points allowed per game.
Defensively they’re “not going to do an awful lot. But just enough in what they believe in, a commitment to what they can do well and what they can do to win. It’s going to be that type of a Big Ten game,” Smith said of Iowa.
The Fighting Illini, on the other hand, are paying the price for playing so many young guys on defense. Six true freshmen have started for a unit that has let up more yards per game than anyone in the Big Ten.
» Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley has 12 TD passes, good for 10th nationally.
» Illinois has started 11 true freshmen overall, most of any team in the country.
» The Hawkeyes’ starting linebackers have combined for 99 career starts and rank first, second and third on the team in tackles.
» The Illini have blocked three kicks in four games, the best total in the nation.
He said it
“We’ve had some that have been really close, long foul ball is what most defensive backs call those things. But that’s just one aspect of improvement that we need to make, and hopefully we’ll start connecting on a few of those. I like the fact that we’re throwing it down there. I like the fact that we’ve been close, and at some point you’ve got to start executing it though.” Ferentz on Stanley’s lack of touch on deep passes this season