Des Moines Register's Chad Leistikow and Rick Brown preview Saturday's game versus Illinois State after speaking to players and coaches.
IOWA CITY, Ia. —On the second play from scrimmage in the FCS title game eight months ago, Illinois State playmaker No. 1A Tre Roberson took a shotgun snap and saw an opening to his left. He faked a handoff right to playmaker No. 1B Marshaun Coprich and sprinted up the left side for a 30-yard gain that looked effortless.
It was the type of play that haunted Iowa to the bitter end last season. How much progress has occurred inside Iowa's Football Operations Center in the past eight months will go a long way in determining whether the Hawkeyes can survive Saturday’s 11 a.m. season opener against the Redbirds to avoid the program’s first loss to an FCS opponent.
The Hawkeyes, 12-0 all-time against the FCS including a 31-23 win in last year’s opener against Northern Iowa, are listed as a 9-point favorite vs. Illinois State.
But in 1A and 1B, Illinois State has two playmaking starting points to help spring the upset.
Let’s start with 1A. The name Tre Roberson (6 feet, 205 pounds) should sound familiar. As a true freshman at Indiana, Roberson started a 2011 game at Kinnick Stadium and completed 16 of 24 passes for 196 yards and rushed for 82 more on 15 attempts in a 45-24 loss to the Hawkeyes. Last fall in his first season at Illinois State after transferring, all Roberson did was account for 4,250 yards of total offense (3,221 passing, 1,029 rushing) and 41 touchdowns. He might be the best quarterback Iowa faces all season.
As for 1B, Coprich led FCS in rushing with 2,274 yards (151.6 per game). At 5-foot-9, 205 pounds, Coprich delivers a shifty, powerful challenge while running 4.5 seconds in 40 yards. He's on the NFL's radar and every bit legit.
The dynamic duo's junior numbers came after a sluggish-by-comparison start to the season as Roberson became acclimated to the system of new offensive coordinator Kurt Beathard (who is the uncle of Iowa starting quarterback C.J. Beathard).
“We’re starting the season without having to start over,” Beathard told The (Bloomington, Ill.) Pantagraph on Illinois State’s media day. “I know what his (Roberson’s) strengths and weaknesses are, what things we need to let go of and move on from. Defenses have to defend more, not only with his planned running but with his scrambling ability.”
Defending the outside running game has been an off-season priority for Iowa, which allowed 40.75 points per game against similar attacks presented a year ago by Indiana, Maryland, Minnesota and bowl opponent Tennessee.
Recognizing its weakness, Iowa has shaken up its linebacker unit since. Sophomore Ben Niemann and senior Cole Fisher, who played mostly on special teams a year ago, are now starters and TaxSlayer Bowl defensive MVP Josey Jewell was moved to starting middle linebacker. The linebackers have looked much improved in three open practices since April.
Watch those three plus senior defensive ends Drew Ott and Nate Meier on Saturday. If they can keep Roberson and Coprich inside the tackles — and Illinois State, like Iowa, is breaking in two new offensive tackles — it should establish the forecast for the day’s outcome.
“It all starts with setting an edge,” Iowa linebackers coach Jim Reid said. “And when you can set the edge on the outside, now you lead leverage players coming hard inside out through that edge set that will help.”
Iowa began preparations in earnest for Illinois State late last week. In addition to Roberson and Coprich, undoubtedly circled on the iPad game plan is No. 4 for Illinois State — defensive end David Perkins.
Perkins was a highly recruited four-star athlete who transferred from Ohio State after playing nine games for Urban Meyer as a true freshman in 2012. Now a senior, Perkins is coming off a junior campaign with 64 tackles, including eight sacks. New Iowa left tackle Boone Myers will need to win a lot of one-on-one battles against Perkins — and he’s had good practice, going against Ott (maybe Iowa’s best player) every day in practice.
Illinois State's finish as FCS national runner-up was no fluke. Brock Spack is a good football coach. And with his key guys back, expectations are soaring. On media day, Spack proclaimed, “Anything short of a national championship at Illinois State is not good enough.”
The Redbirds have some dynamic players. But they are replacing two starters at left tackle and both defensive tackles. Sound familiar?
For Iowa to neutralize a dangerous opponent that has all the motivation in the world, it’ll have to be more advanced in the trenches — and conquer the run-defense demons of 2014.
IOWA VS. ILLINOIS STATE
When, where: 11 a.m. Saturday at Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City
Television: Big Ten Network (Announcers: Kevin Kugler, Matt Millen and Lisa Byington)
The spread: Iowa is favored by 9
The forecast: Sunny, with a high of 90 degrees and light wind.
About Illinois State: The Redbirds went 13-2 last year and are ranked No. 2 in the preseason FCS poll after falling in the national title game Jan. 10 to No. 1 North Dakota State, 29-27. (By the way: Iowa hosts North Dakota State in 2016.) … Former Indiana quarterback Tre Roberson, a fifth-year senior, amassed 4,250 yards in total offense in 2014. … Former Hawkeye Reggie Spearman, a junior, is listed as second-team weak-side linebacker. He started Iowa’s first seven games at that position before being suspended after an OWI arrest and ultimately transferring.