IOWA CITY, Iowa – It’s enjoyed a fast start this season after a mediocre campaign a year ago. Defensive improvement has contributed greatly to the success.
That sounds a lot like Iowa (5-0). The same can be said of this week’s Hawkeye Homecoming opponent, Illinois (4-1).
In ’14, the Illini defense ranked last in the Big Ten in scoring, allowing 34.0 points per game. They also sat on the bottom on yards yielded (456.4).
Through five games this fall, Illinois ranked seventh among league teams in scoring (17.8 PPG) and total defense (303.4 YPG).
"When you look at the film, you see a team that’s playing with great effort right now," Hawkeye Head Coach Kirk Ferentz said. "They’re not dramatically different offensively, but they are dramatically different on the defensive side. They’ve really done a lot of good things defensively, and they’re playing really well right now."
Iowa’s offense was held largely in check in Saturday’s 10-6 win at then-No. 19 Wisconsin. Quarterback C.J. Beathard struggled through the worst start of his career in completing just 9 of 21 passes for 77 yards with one touchdown and an interception. Another pick was wiped out by penalty.
Last year in Champaign, the Hawkeyes reeled off 26 first downs and 587 yards (304 rushing). They held almost an 11-minute advantage in time of possession.
In ’14, 10 of the Illini’s 13 opponents scored at least 30 points. Through five contests in ’15, only one has reached that total. North Carolina beat them, 48-14, in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels cashed in on a punt return for a touchdown.
"They’ve gotten a lot better since last year," Beathard said. "They’ve got a lot more confidence right now and some older guys on their defense, which has helped them out. They’re playing with a lot of momentum right now, which is a lot better than last year.
"They’re a good defense and we just have to go out there and play our best football."
Illinois Linebacker Mason Monheim flies under the radar but his 331 career tackles are the second most among active FBS players. Free safety Clayton Fejedelem leads the team and ranks seventh in the Big Ten with 9.2 stops per game.
The Illini boasts weapons on the other side of the ball as well. Receiver Geronimo Allison leads the league in receptions (32) and receiving yardage (453). Quarterback Wes Lunt is throwing for 221.4 yards per contest, good for third in the conference.
Like Iowa, outsiders weren’t expecting much from the Illini this season. The school dismissed Head Coach Tim Beckman a week before it kicked off ’15 after former players accused him of abuse. Offensive Coordinator Bill Cubit took the reigns.
Cubit is a veteran coach who led a Western Michigan program into Iowa City for the 2007 regular-season finale and left town with a 28-19 win. It eliminated the Hawkeyes from post-season consideration.
"Bill Cubit is an excellent offensive mind," Ferentz said. "He picked us apart in that ’07 game. That was surgery.
"We haven’t had a lot of people do that to us, but that game and the Arizona State game stand out in my mind from ’04 where it’s just like they had an answer for anything we even thought about, let alone did. And that wasn’t much fun either way."
Illinois could be minus a key player this weekend. Running Back Josh Ferguson is listed by Cubit as doubtful after injuring his shoulder on Saturday’s, come-from-behind, 14-13 victory against Nebraska. The senior has 397 yards and three touchdowns on 71 carries this season.
Freshman Ke’Shawn Vaughn replaced Ferguson against Nebraska and was the only other back to carry the ball. He finished with 98 yards on 24 carries.
Cubit shares an admiration for the Iowa defense similar to what the Hawkeyes have for his unit.
"Defensively, their front collectively is the best we’ve played against," he said. "They’ve got some guys there that are really good football players and then the (Desmond) King kid in the back, he’s leading the league in interceptions (five). He’s a ball hawk."
Time, TV, Announcers: 11 a.m. CT on ESPN2 with Clay Matvick and John Congemi.
The Series: Illinois holds a 38-30-2 edge after last year’s 30-14 Iowa win in Champaign.
Betting Line: Iowa opened as an 11-point favorite and the number has pretty much stayed in that area so far.
-Illinois is 3-14 Against The Spread in its last 17 road games.
-Iowa is 8-3 Straight Up in its last 11 home games.
Match-up to Watch: Even with a relatively productive running game against Wisconsin, the Hawkeyes struggled in the passing game. Perhaps it resulted from the absence of top downfield threat Tevaun Smith (knee), who has been ruled out for at least the next two games.
The Badgers ability to limit Iowa’s big plays hampered the visitors. Their longest plays were 21 and 20 yards. That represented the fewest explosive plays in a game this season for them.
You can bet Illinois will attack the Hawkeyes’ running game and see if they can connect down the field without Smith. Iowa must find a way to make that happen.
True freshman Jerminic Smith replaced Tevaun Smith last week and was targeted twice deep. Beathard said Tuesday that his chemistry with the young pass catcher has improved.
Much of this season’s offensive success for Iowa has resulted from the ability to stretch the field. That was missing last week and needs to return.
Take Note: Iowa is the only school in the country yet to allow a rushing touchdown.
Take Note, Take Two: The Hawkeyes are trying to improve to 6-0 for the first time since ’09, the second time under Ferentz and the seventh time in school history.
Non-Sports Related: The University of Illinois has appeared in the movies Risky Business, With Honors (film location), Blues Brothers, 2001 Space Odyssey (the computer Hal was born at UIUC), and Kicking and Screaming (2005 Will Ferrell movie).
Did You Know?: Playboy Founder Hugh Hefner edited the University of Illinois campus humor magazine and drew cartoons for the newspaper, the Daily Illini, while a student there in the 1940s.
Did You Also Know?: Tom Hank’s younger brother, Lawrence M. Hanks, teaches entomology at Illinois. Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, Rajmohan Gandhi, is an international studies research professor at the school.
Illinois Wins If… it stops Iowa’s running game.
Iowa Wins If… it limits Illinois’ big plays.
Overview: Last week, I felt much better about the Hawkeyes’ chances in Madison after watching them through four games. I hopped on the bandwagon and predicted a win.
Before the season, I saw this contest against the Illini as lopsided in Iowa’s favor, much like last season’s meeting. While I feel even better about the Hawkeyes, Illinois might have improved more than any other Big Ten team outside of them and Northwestern from a year ago.
While this game will be closer than what I thought it would be in August, my faith in this Iowa squad to avoid letdowns and focus on the task at hand is greater than back then. I just can’t see this group overlooking anyone on the schedule. If they lose, it won’t be for that reason.
Iowa is the better team here. It’s improving each week. That will be enough again.
Prediction: IOWA 27, Illinois 20.