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Illinois vs. Iowa Football Prediction and Preview

Tyler Goodson, Iowa Hawkeyes Football

Tyler Goodson and the Hawkeyes host the Fighting Illini in a critical Big Ten West matchup for both teams

Iowa looks to keep its Big Ten West title hopes alive while Illinois is fighting for its bowl chances when the two teams face off in Kinnick Stadium on Saturday afternoon. 

The Hawkeyes (8-2, 5-2) are tied with Wisconsin atop the division, but the Badgers own the head-to-head tiebreaker. So Iowa must win out and hope Wisconsin slips up.

Meanwhile, the Illini (4-6, 3-4) must win both of their remaining games to become bowl eligible. Illinois is coming off of a bye while the Hawkeyes scored a nice road win at Minnesota last Saturday. 

Iowa also has defeated the Illini seven straight times and hasn't lost at home to them since 1999. If Illinois wants to end this streak it will do it without head coach Bret Bielema, who tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this week.

Illinois at Iowa

Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 20 at 3 p.m. ET
TV: FS1
Spread: Iowa -12.5

When Illinois Has the Ball

The Illini offense has been most effective this season when it's been able to run the ball. The ground game came up huge in their upset of Penn State on Oct. 23, as they put up 357 rushing yards (on 67 carries) against the Nittany Lions in the nine-overtime marathon. For the season, Illinois is seventh in the Big Ten with 180.2 rushing yards per game.

Running back Chase Brown leads the way with 851 yards, good for fourth in the conference. He's averaging six yards per carry and has a team-high four rushing touchdowns. He hasn't done it alone, as Josh McCray (491 yds., 5.2 ypc) and Reggie Love III (150, 3.6) have also pitched in.

The ground game has had to carry the load because the passing attack is dead last in the conference and 110th in the country with just 138.4 yards per game. Injuries have hampered starter Brandon Peters, and backup Artur Sitkowski hasn't performed much better. The two have thrown just three interceptions combined, but they also have totaled just 10 touchdowns through the air. Peters has been playing better recently (270-3-0 in his last two games) but still hasn't produced big numbers. Wide receiver Isaiah Williams (38 rec., 376 yds., 2 TDs) and tight end Daniel Barker (14, 166, 4) have been the top two targets for the Illini.

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But the offense as a whole will have a daunting task ahead of it, trying to move the ball against an Iowa defense that ranks seventh in the country in points (16.3) and 12th in yards (315.1) per game allowed. The Hawkeyes may only be sixth in the Big Ten in passing yards allowed per game (207.4), but they more than make up for that with their FBS-leading 19 interceptions compared to 11 touchdown passes allowed. When Peters drops back to pass, he needs to be purposeful with his throws or Iowa will make him pay.

When Iowa Has the Ball

As well as the Hawkeyes' defense has played this season, the same can't be said for the offense. Iowa is last in the Big Ten in yards per game (297.0) and an uncharacteristic 12th in rushing offense (109.6 ypg). The lack of consistent offensive production played a huge role in the Hawkeyes' losses to Purdue and Wisconsin.

And the offense is now dealing with a new challenge as starting quarterback Spencer Petras was knocked out of the win against Northwestern two weeks ago and missed last week's game with Minnesota. He's not expected to return this weekend, either, meaning Alex Padilla will make another start. The sophomore has held his own, completing 29 of 52 passes for 378 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions in the last two games, but he hasn't solved Iowa's offensive issues either.

Typical of Kirk Ferentz-coached teams, tight end Sam LaPorta plays a big role in the Hawkeyes' passing game. He leads the team in receptions (37) and receiving yards (425), but that's also part of the problem. No other Iowa player has more than 23 catches (wide receiver Nico Ragaini, running back Tyler Goodson) or 316 yards (wide receiver Keagan Johnson), and wideout Charlie Jones leads the teams with just three touchdown catches (LaPorta and Johnson both have two).

And while Goodson may rank seventh in the Big Ten with 813 rushing yards, he's averaging 4.3 yards per attempt with six rushing touchdowns. The productive, punishing Iowa ground attack just isn't there this season, and the Hawkeyes have never been known as a prolific passing team. That's why they are 10th in the league in scoring (24.7 ppg).

The good news for Iowa is that Illinois ranks near the bottom of the conference in most defensive categories, including 11th in total (389.9 ypg) and pass (237.6 ypg), as well as 10th against the run (152.3 ypg). Just don't expect an offensive explosion on Saturday either.

Final Analysis

Iowa has dominated this series recently and has an overwhelming edge on defense in this matchup. Illinois hasn't won in Kinnick Stadium in more than 20 years and won't have its head coach on the sidelines. The Hawkeyes may not score a bunch of points, but they won't need to in this one.

Prediction: Iowa 27, Illinois 14

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— Written by Gabe Salgado, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He can also be heard on WGN Radio. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.