The Illinois Fighting Illini and Iowa Hawkeyes both enter Saturday's contest looking to play catch-up in the Big Ten standings. The Illini dropped a home game last Friday night against a Nebraska team that many thought was ripe for an upset. Iowa traveled to East Lansing and came out on the short end of a sloppy, low-scoring game — possibly the result of a letdown after the Hawkeyes' performance against Penn State two weeks ago.
This under-the-radar matchup could very well have significant Big Ten West implications when we look back later in the season.
Illinois at Iowa
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 7 at 12 p.m. ET
TV Channel: Big Ten Network
Spread: Iowa -18
Three Things to Watch
1. Illinois quarterback situation
Illini head coach Lovie Smith named Jeff George Jr. the starter for the Iowa game early on in the week. The Illinois offense has been struggling in the passing game as of late, but this is still a curious move. On the one hand, George's ability to push the ball downfield to some capable-but-under-utilized receivers will put more pressure on a young Hawkeye secondary. On the other hand, Kirk Ferentz's Iowa teams often struggle with mobile quarterbacks. Chayce Crouch, Illinois' dual-threat option, showed flashes of brilliance against Nebraska last week. Even with George getting the start, don't be surprised to see Crouch if and when the Illini get in the red zone or into a critical short-yardage situation.
2. Can Iowa's running game "get right?"
The Hawkeye coaches, running backs and offensive line were all to blame for the 19 total yards on the ground they were able to muster against Michigan State last weekend. That cannot happen again if Iowa wants to win football games in the Big Ten. The offensive line has had some trouble as of late, but this is a game where this group and the rest of the offense should be able to iron out some wrinkles. The Illini defensive front had a tough time slowing down Nebraska's rushing attack a week ago. If Iowa has any trouble moving the ball on the ground against Illinois, that spells trouble — not only in this game — but for the rest of the season as well.
3. Can Iowa get Noah Fant more involved?
The sophomore tight end is basically a giant receiver with great athleticism, decent hands and solid speed for the position. He's a matchup problem, but Iowa has struggled to get him involved in the passing game as of late. Illinois was soft in coverage in the middle of the field against Nebraska. That's right where the Hawkeyes should attack with Fant early on. A couple of big plays to the tight end early would go a long way in backing off the Illini linebackers and creating more space in the run game. With limited playmaking ability at the receiver position, this is a game where Iowa needs to figure out how to get how to get the most out of its most dangerous aerial threat going forward.
The Hawkeyes are conservative by nature offensively. That could bite them in this game, especially if Jeff George Jr. and the Illini receivers are able to get it going through the air early. Look for the Iowa defense to come at George with some exotic blitzes to throw off timing in the passing game. I don't believe Illinois will be able to run the ball against Iowa's front seven, and obviously that's going to be a problem. If the Hawkeyes are indeed going to be focusing on fixing the run game, this will likely be a low-scoring contest where Iowa controls the tempo from start to finish.
Prediction: Iowa 24, Illinois 10
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. His work has appeared on SI.com, FoxSports.com, Yahoo!, Bleacher Report and SB Nation. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.