IOWA CITY – It’s been a rough two weeks for the Hawkeyes. After a heartbreaker versus Penn State and an offensive egg-laying at Michigan State, Iowa returns to Kinnick still looking for it’s first Big Ten win.
Their opponent for this week is also looking for it’s first conference victory of the season. The Illinois Fighting Illini travel to Iowa City this Saturday to partake in Iowa’s homecoming festivities, with the opening kick scheduled for 11:00am CST on BTN.
Illinois currently sits at 2-2 overall and 0-1 in the Big Ten after a 28-6 dud against Nebraska in their conference opener in Champaign. While struggling entering the weekend, the Illini still have a lot to prove this season.
Head Coach Lovie Smith has played 19 true freshmen this season, tied with LSU, Ball State, and UAB for the second-highest total in the nation. Eleven of those true freshmen have started games for the Illini, more than any other team in the country.
The young Illini team has a lot to gain and little to lose by playing hard and playing physical this weekend inside Kinnick Stadium. Even though they come in as considerable underdogs, the Hawkeyes have to be on their game if they want to avoid an 0-3 start in the Big Ten. Plus, anything can happen on Homecoming weekend, just ask Troy and LSU.
Here’s a sneak-peak at Illini before the Mississippi border war on Saturday:
Dual-threat Junior quarterback Chayce Crouch started each of the first four games for the Illini, but Smith is making a change before heading to Iowa City. Instead, sophomore Jeff George, Jr. will start under center.
George, a traditional pocket-passer, has played in one game this season. In the second half against South Florida, George was 12-for-22 passing with 211 yards, a touchdown, and a pair of interceptions. He was the second-string quarterback to Wes Lunt in 2016 when he played in four games.
It appears that neither of the two quarterbacks has been able to separate themselves from the other. In their careers, neither of them has seen action against the Hawkeyes.
The Illini, regardless of who lines up under center, is still lacking an identity on offense. They rank 126th in the nation in total offense and 113th in passing offense. George has thrown two interceptions in his limited time, and Crouch has one in each of his four starts.
Pressure on the quarterback, whether it’s George or Crouch, will be vital to Hawkeye success. The Hawkeyes have three players ranked in the top ten in sacks in the Big Ten with defensive ends Anthony Nelson (4) and A.J. Epenesa (2.5), and linebacker Josey Jewell (2.5).
“Quarterback hurry” could be the defining statistic in Iowa’s first conference win.
Mike and Mike
A pair of Mikes leads the Illini offense so far this season. Mike Epstein has led the rushing attack while Mike Dudek has served as the No. 1 receiver.
Epstein, a true freshman, leads Illini rushers with 50 carries, 263 yards, and three touchdowns. The three-star recruit from Ft. Lauderdale, FL was also a target of Michigan and Jim Harbaugh, but honored his verbal commitment to Illinois.
Epstein, at 6’0, 190-lbs, is a fast, slippery back, reminiscent of Carolina Panthers rookie tailback Christian McCaffrey. Epstein recognizes holes as well as any back in the conference, so the Hawkeyes have to prevent him from bouncing outside. Containment is the way to keep Epstein from breaking off big plays.
Dudek, a redshirt junior, is finally back on the field for the Illini. After being named a Freshman All-American and second-team Big Ten player in 2014, Dudek missed all of 2015 and 2016 with separate tears of his ACL in his left knee.
It’s been a long road back, but Dudek looks like the player of old. His 16 catches and 195 yards lead the team. Dudek has found the end zone only once this season, but scored a career-high two touchdowns against Iowa in 2014. He finished that game with six catches and 80 yards.
Iowa’s passing defense got off to a slow start last week as Michael Ojemudia allowed two early scores from Felton Davis III. Davis (6’4, 195-lbs) presented a mismatch problem with Ojemudia, but Dudek is a much smaller receiver at 5’11, 185-lbs. This should make for a more favorable matchup with the Iowa secondary, as we should expect to see Dudek primarily lined up in the slot.
Stout Linebacker Duo
Much like the linebacker trio that anchors the Iowa defense, the Illini defense relies on two of their own linebackers to carry the freight.
Del’Shawn Phillips, a junior transfer from Garden City Community College, and junior Tré Watson are the top two tacklers for the Illinois defense.
Phillips ranks 20th nationally and second in the Big Ten with 39 tackles, trailing only Josey Jewell’s 60 tackles for the conference lead. The junior college transfer helped lead Garden City to a national championship in 2016 and came to Illinois as the second-ranked junior college linebacker in the country, according to 247Sports.
Watson is second on the team and ninth in the Big Ten with 31 tackles. The linebacker has played in every game after redshirting in 2014. Last season, during Iowa’s 28-0 victory in Champaign, Watson racked up 15 total tackles, one shy of his career high. Watson is coming off of an eight-tackle performance against Nebraska last week.
Iowa’s run game is broken despite having the dynamic Akrum Wadley in the backfield. Wadley has had a hard time getting going in Big Ten play, and these two junior linebackers present the next roadblock on the schedule. Tight ends and fullbacks are going to need to get bodies on Phillips and Watson to give their star back room to run.
This week is no tune up despite Illinois’ recent struggles. Every game in the Big Ten is a test, and if you don’t show up prepared, you’re not going to come away with a win. Iowa wasn’t prepared for Michigan State. They have to be ready for Illinois, or they’ll be staring at an 0-3 Big Ten record.