By RossWB on November 23, 2019 at 9:47 am
lovie time
© Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

WHO: Illinois Fighting Illini (6-4, 4-3 Big Ten)
WHEN: Saturday, November 23, 2019
WHERE: Kinnick Stadium (Iowa City, IA)
KICKOFF: 11:00 AM Central
RADIO: Hawkeye Sports Network (check local listings); TuneIn
Kevin Kugler, Matt Millen, Rick Pizzo
ODDS: Iowa -15.5
WEATHER: mostly sunny, temps in the low 40s, 10-12 mph winds


Illinois still leads the all-time series between the schools, 38-34-2, but recent success by Iowa has cut into that Illini advantage. Iowa has won five in a row and 10 of the last 11 against Illinois. 


Illinois' season to date has been marked by streaks. Illinois opened with two wins -- over two of the worst teams in FBS, Akron and UConn. They followed that four straight losses, including back-to-back narrow misses against Eastern Michigan and Nebraska (as well as blowout losses to Michigan and Minnesota). But the game against Wisconsin was the turning point for their season; the Illini used a last-second field goal to topple the Badgers and they've been able to ride the momentum of that victory to four straight wins. Their most recent win was a wild comeback over Michigan State in which they overcame a 28-3 deficit and outscored the Spartans 27-3 in the fourth quarter. That win ensured that the Illini would be bowl-eligible this year -- with two whole games to spare! It's been a heck of a year for Santa Lovie. 


Illinois ranks 7th in the Big Ten in scoring offense (30.7 ppg), though just 12th in total offense (333.7 ypg). They're 12th in the league in passing offense, averaging 183.4 ypg, though they have 17 touchdowns against just five interceptions. During their 4-game winning streak, Illinois' passing hasn't been noticeably improved, either -- they've gone just 40/81 for 689 yards, with six touchdowns (only one interception, though). The Illini are 9th in the Big Ten in rushing offense, averaging 150.3 yards per game on the ground (3.87 ypc), with 17 touchdowns. They were notably improved on the ground in at least some of their recent wins, though -- though they ran the ball just 27 times for 36 carries against MSU, they ran it 97 times for 446 yards and four touchdowns in their wins over Rutgers and Purdue. They also had reasonable success running on Wisconsin, with 35 carries for 141 yards and a touchdown. 

At QB Michigan transfer Brandon Peters has been heating up lately. For the season, he's gone 114/207 (55.1%) for 1486 yards (7.2 ypa), 16 TD, and 5 INT. But in their four-game winning streak he's thrown for 689 yards, 6 touchdowns, and just one interception. Peters' top target -- and Illinois' best receiver by far -- has been Josh Imatorbhebhe, who has 29 catches for 598 yards (an absurd 20.6 yards per catch average) and nine touchdowns. He is a walking big play threat on every snap. Donny Navarro is second on the team in receiving yards (232), followed by Ricky Smalling (225); they each have one touchdown reception. Tight end Daniel Barker has the most touchdowns outside of Imatorbhebhe, with three touchdowns. On the ground, Illinois has a 1-2 punch at running back with seniors Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown. Corbin is leading the team in carries (116), yards (606), and touchdowns (6), though Brown isn't too far behind with 83 carries for 461 yards and four touchdowns. 


Illinois is 10th in the Big Ten in scoring defense, giving up 25.7 ppg. They're also 10th in the league in total defense, giving up 409.5 ypg (5.54 ypp). Their defense was better in their recent wins over Purdue and Rutgers (they gave up just 271 ypg and 8 ppg), but it was gashed by Wisconsin (420 yards, 5.6 ypp, though just 23 points) and Michigan State (526 yards, 6.05 ypp, 34 points). Illinois' defense has been better through the air, allowing 213.3 ypg (8th in the Big Ten) and 16 TD against 10 interceptions. Their run defense has been abysmal; it ranks 13th in the Big Ten overall with 196.2 ypg and 14 TD on 4.3 ypc. In league-only action, they're dead-last in rush defense, giving up 246.3 ypg and 12 TD on 4.9 ypc. Four of seven Big Ten foes have run for at least 275 yards on the Illini this season (though, curiously, Wisconsin was not one of them, as they held the Badgers to just 156 yards on the ground). 

So how are they winning games? Turnovers and stingy red zone play, mainly. Illinois leads the nation in turnover margin at +16. They also lead the nation in most turnovers forced (26) and most fumbles recovered (16). They're tied for 29th nationally in interceptions (10). In their four-game winning streak, Illinois has a turnover margin of +9 as they've been able to force 12 turnovers and give the ball away just three times. They've also been able to turn those turnovers recovered into six defensive touchdowns, including four pick-sixes. 

Illinois has allowed just 21 touchdowns in 39 red zone trips this year, a 53.9% conversion rate that ranks 30th nationally. Sure enough, in their current 4-game winning streak teams have scored just six touchdowns in 12 red zone trips. Wisconsin made five trips inside the Illinois 20-yard line, but scored just two touchdowns from those trips, which proved costly. Likewise, Michigan State came away with three touchdowns in their five red zone trips and those lost points hurt in a close loss. 


Given how critical forcing turnovers on defense has been to Illinois' success, I'm tempted to say "Iowa's offense vs Illinois' defense," but that seems too broad. But, clearly, avoiding turnovers will be vital for Iowa in this game. Turnovers have been a critical part of Illinois' recent success and Iowa needs to avoid giving them cheap points or good field position. So I'll go with Iowa's offense against Illinois' defense in the red zone. The stats suggest that Iowa should be able to move the ball on Illinois, at least between the 20s -- but can they get into the end zone when they get inside the red zone? Iowa's only scoring touchdowns on 59.4% of their red zone trips (19/32), though they were much better at finishing drives in the end zone against Minnesota last week. Limiting Iowa to field goals instead of touchdowns is how Illinois can hang around in this game. 


Just win. Pasting the Illini 63-0 last season was a delight and a sequel performance would be fun, but it's not necessary. Just get the W on Senior Day and improve to 8-3 overall, please. 


The gameplan for Iowa in this game is pretty straightforward: avoid turnovers and finish drives with touchdowns. If they do that, it will be very difficult for Illinois to win this game. Their offense isn't particularly good overall, especially when they don't have short fields to work with. The gradually-improving Iowa run offense could be in line for a breakout performance against Illinois' soft run defense and I think Nate Stanley will be able to hit a few big plays on Senior Day. Illinois has been good at forcing turnovers this season... but they've also been rather lucky in that regard as well. I'm going to trust that their good luck will slow down in this game. 


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