The COVID-19 pandemic continues to cause postponements and cancellations as the 2020 college football season winds down. But this week, the Illinois Fighting Illini (2-3) are hoping that won't be the case when they host the Iowa Hawkeyes (4-2) at Memorial Stadium.
The Illini's home game against Ohio State last Saturday was canceled because of COVID-19 cases within the OSU program, but the Buckeyes were favored to win big. The only silver lining is that Illinois can carry its two-game winning streak into this game, where the 24th-ranked Hawkeyes, are coming off a home victory against Nebraska last Friday, their sixth straight win against the Cornhuskers.
Both teams are peaking at the right time. Before the Ohio State cancellation, Illinois had won back-to-back games against Rutgers and Nebraska by a combined score of 64-43. Iowa, on the other hand, has reeled off four straight wins after an 0-2 start. The Hawkeyes are looking for another win as they inch closer to a bowl game, while Illinois needs a win to keep their postseason hopes alive.
No. 19 Iowa at Illinois
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 5 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Iowa -13.5
When Iowa Has the Ball
Kirk Ferentz's pro-style offense continues to get the job done in Iowa City. Spencer Petras has the fourth-most passing yards (1,138) in the Big Ten this season, and despite completing just 56.3 percent of his passes, he's fourth in the conference in completions. He's also averaging 5.9 yards per attempt, holds a 107.7 passer rating, and has four touchdown passes. Like many Hawkeye signal-callers before him, Petras is efficient but not flashy.
Tight end Sam LaPorta is Iowa's leading receiver (22 receptions, 203 yards), while wide receivers Nico Ragini, Ihmir Smith-Marsette, and Tyrone Tracy Jr. (combined for 45 catches, 516 yards, and two touchdowns) also power the passing game. But the driving forces behind this offense are running backs Tyler Goodson and Mekhi Sargent. Goodson is the Big Ten's second-leading rusher (564 yards), while Sargent is second in yards per attempt (6.2) and third in touchdown runs (7). These men are the reason why Iowa is the Big Ten's sixth-ranked rushing offense (172.8 ypg).
The Hawkeyes present one of the most balanced offenses in all of college football. And they'll be looking to move the ball against an Illinois defense that's not only second-worst in the conference (448.2 ypg, 32.0 ppg), but they've also lost linebacker Tarique Barnes and his 25 tackles to a season-ending leg injury.
When Illinois Has the Ball
Quarterback Brandon Peters returned under center for the Illini against Nebraska two weeks ago. He completed 72 percent of his throws against the Cornhuskers — his best showing since transferring to Illinois — for 205 yards and a touchdown while rushing for an additional score. He got the job done and didn't show any signs of being sluggish. Wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe (15 receptions, 215 yards, 2 touchdowns), and tight end Daniel Barker (12 receptions, 174 yards) are Illinois' leading receivers.
The Illini can also run the ball very well. Running backs Chase Brown (357) and Mike Epstein (338), rank ninth and 10th, respectively in the conference in rushing yards. They've also combined for six touchdown runs — Peters has added 111 yards and one score to the ground game — and Illinois has the Big Ten's second-best rushing offense on a per-game (222.4 ypg) and per-attempt (5.1) basis. Look for Illinois to run the ball early and often, but run blocking will be a little more challenging after offensive lineman Alex Palczewski sustained a season-ending leg injury.
The Hawkeyes will test the Illini offense with their toughest competition since their season-opener against Wisconsin. Iowa has the Big Ten's third-best total defense (322.8 ypg), run defense (109.3 ypg), and scoring defense (16.7 ppg). The Hawkeyes are also fourth in pass defense (213.5 ypg), second in sacks (19), and third in interceptions (10).
The Fighting Illini lead this all-time series 38-35-2. But Iowa has won each of the last six meetings by a combined score of 214-60. Illinois hasn't defeated Iowa since 2008, and the Illini have gone 2-5 in their last seven home games against the Hawkeyes. After this weekend, you can make it 2-6 as Iowa's defense and run game rule the day.
Prediction: Iowa 28, Illinois 17
Podcast: Coaching Carousel and Week 14 Preview and Predictions
— Gabe Salgado 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.
(Tyler Goodson photo courtesy of Iowa Athletics)