The battle to sort out the contenders from the pretenders in the Big Ten's West Division continues on Saturday when the Illinois Fighting Illini get a visit from the Iowa Hawkeyes. Illinois (4-1, 1-1 Big Ten) is riding a three-game winning streak after posting a convincing 34-10 victory at Wisconsin last week. Iowa (3-2, 1-1), on the other hand, fell 27-14 at home to Michigan.
Those results helped create a six-way tie for first in the West, a logjam that also includes Northwestern, Nebraska, Purdue, and Minnesota. So this game will not only help create a little bit of separation but it also represents an opportunity for the Illini to end another losing streak. Last weekend, Illinois won its first game in 20 years in Madison (and helped put an end to head coach Paul Chryst's tenure with the Badgers as well). Now Bret Bielema's team can pick up its first victory against Iowa since 2008. Despite the current eight-game losing streak to the Hawkeyes, the Illini hold a slim 38-37-2 all-time lead in the head-to-head series.
Iowa at Illinois
When Iowa Has the Ball
Simply put, mustering any sort of offense has been an issue for the Hawkeyes this season. They rank last in the Big Ten and 119th or worse in the nation in all four major categories. In fact, only one other team (Colorado State) is averaging fewer than Iowa's 242.2 yards per game.
While quarterback play has been inconsistent for the last several years, head coach Kirk Ferentz doesn't even have a solid running game to lean on right now. The Hawkeyes are averaging a meager 88.2 rushing yards per game and only 2.8 yards per carry. Kaleb Johnson is leading the way with 206 yards and is responsible for three of the five touchdowns the team has scored on the ground.
Things may not get any easier against an Illinois defense that is leading the Big Ten in points allowed per game (8.4) and also is No. 1 against the run (70.2 ypg). The latter was definitely on display last week against Wisconsin, holding the Badgers to just two rushing yards net while collecting five sacks and generating three turnovers in a dominating performance on the road.
The Fighting Illini also lead the Big Ten with 16 sacks. Gabe Jacas, Jer'Zhan Newton, and Keith Randolph Jr. have three each. Kendall Smith is responsible for three of the team's eight interceptions. That ties him for the conference lead, while Illinois is tied with Penn State for the most takeaways (12).
When Illinois Has the Ball
The Fighting Illini offense starts with running back Chase Brown, the nation's leading rusher. After piling up 129 yards in the win over Wisconsin, Brown enters this game with 733 yards on 120 carries. Despite all the work and increased defensive attention, he's averaging 6.1 yards per attempt. While he may be the most important piece to this offense, Brown is certainly not doing it alone.
Quarterback Tommy DeVito, a Syracuse transfer, is second only to Ohio State's C.J. Stroud in the Big Ten with nine touchdown passes. He may not be throwing for a ton of yards (224.2 per game), but he's been accurate (69.9 percent completion rate) and has thrown just two interceptions thus far. Wide receivers Pat Bryant (313) and Isaiah Williams (291) have emerged as reliable targets for DeVito throw to. Illinois has given up 11 sacks, but that hasn't seemed to hinder the offense too much to this point. Overall, the Illini are averaging 29.4 points per game, which is well above last season's output (20.2).
Iowa's defense is a big reason why the team is no worse than 2-2 at this point. The Hawkeyes are holding teams to just 10 points and 254.4 yards per game. On the ground, they are giving up just 2.7 yards per carry with just two rushing touchdowns so far. Both of these aspects will be tested by Illinois on Saturday. Iowa also has continued its ball-hawking ways with five interceptions vs. three touchdown passes allowed through five games. Linebacker Jack Campbell (50 tackles) is the anchor while Cooper DeJean is tied with the Illini's Smith for the Big Ten lead with three interceptions. Lukas Van Ness (three sacks, five tackles for a loss) has been the big playmaker up front thus far.
Iowa has dominated this series lately, winning the last eight meetings but it's clear that Illinois enters this game with more momentum. The Fighting Illini made a major statement with their 24-point rout of Wisconsin on the road last week and feature the nation's leading rusher. Meanwhile, the Hawkeyes have had all sorts of issues on offense. This game is taking place in Champaign, which gives Illini another advantage, which they will capitalize on to help them secure another satisfying victory in what is becoming quite the turnaround campaign in Year 2 under head coach Bret Bielema.
Prediction: Illinois 24, Iowa 21
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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.
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