Leistikow's Iowa-Illinois prediction: Soaring snap counts on defense a big Hawkeye concern

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY — Iowa’s defensive players wouldn’t admit this publicly. But they’re tired.

The evidence is plentiful.

Bad tackling, a very un-Iowa thing, showed up at Northwestern. That's a telltale sign of tired legs undermining fundamentals. The enormous snap counts Hawkeye regulars have played against a steady diet of physical opponents can’t be ignored. Last week, Minnesota gained more rushing yards against Iowa (189) than any opponent in more than two years.

Additionally, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz’s comments in the second half of the season have hinted that guys are playing hurt. Sure, that can be assumed in college football every November. But the toll on players’ bodies is something that Ferentz conceded the team is feeling, considering the pandemic-shortened 2020 season had only eight games. Throw in a 2020 with scaled-back training due to COVID-19 protocols and the fact that Iowa is approaching its 11th 2021 game Saturday against an Illinois team fresh off a bye week … and it's easy to see why this is a notable topic.

"It's not just November, but it's November even for our older guys who aren't used to going the 12-lap race,” Ferentz said. “We're trying to be mindful (of snap counts).

More:Leistikow: How Alex Padilla's football journey prepared him for Iowa quarterback shot

Iowa linebacker Seth Benson and safety Jack Koerner look to the sidelines during Iowa's 27-22 win against Minnesota. The Hawkeyes' defense was on the field for 83 snaps Saturday.

“And we also encourage our guys to be mindful of their personal lives. You can't play Big Ten football and go to school and do the things you have to do if you're not smart about what you're doing pretty much every hour of the day. You've got to get your rest, get off your feet, get the right nutrition, all those things.

“We talk about that. The key is really paying attention to it. Because it shows up, good or bad, on the field.”

How heavy is the toll?

Middle linebacker Jack Campbell has played every defensive snap in Iowa’s last five games — 397 against Penn State, Purdue, Wisconsin, Northwestern and Minnesota for an average of 79.4 per game, according to Pro Football Focus — and has logged 708 for the season.

More:Iowa football's season of extremes still can finish among Kirk Ferentz's most noteworthy

Free safety Jack Koerner (704 snaps), cornerback Matt Hankins (694), cash corner Dane Belton (681) and linebacker Seth Benson (602) have been Iowa’s other defensive ironmen. And the workload has increased considerably in the home stretch. Collectively, that group of five averaged 58.6 snaps in Iowa’s first five games; the average is 77.0 over the last five.

On the defensive line, where Iowa coaches became extremely mindful of workloads after seeing significant wear at the end of the 2015 season, snap counts are soaring. Top defensive end Zach VanValkenburg averaged 48.8 snaps in Iowa’s first five games; he's been asked to shoulder an average of 66.8 over Iowa’s last five.

VanValkenburg leads Iowa defensive linemen with 578 snaps this season, followed by John Waggoner’s 485. The four main defensive tackles have had a healthier time share, with Logan Lee (365), Noah Shannon (364), Lukas Van Ness (320) and Yahya Black (250) rotating.

The Hawkeye defense is trying to get to the finish line, and it’s a short week of prep after Saturday for the Black Friday finale at Nebraska. If Iowa were to make the Dec. 4 Big Ten Championship Game, that would be another challenge yet.

“Our training staff does a great job of getting us in here, getting us recovered,” outside linebacker Jestin Jacobs said. “(Addressing) our injuries and coming up with a plan to get us as healthy as we can for the next week.”

More:Here's what Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz said in his press conference ahead of the Illinois game

There’s a better solution, though, to help the defense recover.

And that falls on Iowa’s offense. The Hawkeye offense ran just 49 plays against Minnesota, the team's lowest in any game since early 2017, and have averaged just 59 snaps over the last four contests. A typical per-game average for Iowa is in the high 60s.

So, the Hawkeyes are highly motivated to hog the football Saturday against Illinois. That can control the time of possession and help the defense get rest. Ideally, it leads to a blowout win and inserting second- and third-team defenders by the fourth quarter.

During an interview this week, offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz said he’s seen growth in the offensive line over the past two weeks. He also expressed a determination to find more consistently long drives.

“That’s the biggest metric for improvement: Can we sustain some drives and stay on the field for the duration of the game?” he said. “(And do so) without some of those lulls and some of those three-and-outs.”

That would certainly help the defense … and to keep Iowa’s Big Ten West title hopes alive.

Illinois wins if … 

Though the Illini are missing head coach Bret Bielema after the former Hawkeye's COVID-19 diagnosis, they already know the blueprint to a tough road victory. They need to ride their all-seniors offensive line and running back Chase Brown. In back-to-back road wins, Brown accrued 223 of Illinois' 357 rushing yards at Penn State and 147 of Illinois' 185 at Minnesota. The Illini special teams, led by Australian punter Blake Hayes, have the potential to saddle the Hawkeyes with miserable field position.

Iowa wins if … 

While Illinois defense is allowing just 17.6 points per game in Big Ten action (even better than Iowa's 17.9), it ranks a vulnerable 68th nationally in 5.61 yards allowed per play. The Alex Padilla-led offense needs to find a healthy run-pass mix to keep Illinois off-balance and, most importantly, score touchdowns in the red zone instead of field goals. We saw how that torpedoed Minnesota's chances last week at Kinnick.

Illinois (4-6, 3-4 Big Ten) at No. 14 Iowa (8-2, 5-2)

Time, TV, Tipico Sportsbook line: 1:05 p.m. Saturday, Fox Sports 1, Iowa by 13 points

Prediction: Iowa 21, Illinois 16 … Illinois gives a spirited effort in its quest for bowl eligibility, but the Hawkeyes earn their third straight five-point win behind big days from running back Tyler Goodson and tight end Sam LaPorta.

Saturday's other Big Ten games

(All times CT, lines from Tipico Sportsbook)

No. 8 Michigan State (9-1, 6-1) at No. 4 Ohio State (9-1, 7-0)

Time, TV, line: 11 a.m., ABC, Ohio State by 19

Prediction: The reported 10-year, $95 million extension headed the way of Michigan State coach Mel Tucker is the big side story to this week's colossal top-10 matchup. Why such a high spread? Because the Buckeyes average 10 yards per pass attempt, and the Spartans have the worst pass defense in FBS. Ohio State 52, Michigan State 28

Purdue (6-4, 4-3) vs. Northwestern (3-7, 1-6) at Wrigley Field

Time, TV, line: 11 a.m., BTN, Purdue by 11

Prediction: After a 28-point loss at Ohio State, Purdue gets relief with the Big Ten's two worst teams in Northwestern and Indiana to finish. Look for David Bell to hit some North Side dingers on his way to the Biletnikoff Award. Purdue 37, Northwestern 20

Rutgers (5-5, 2-5) at Penn State (6-4, 3-4)

Time, TV, line: 11 a.m., BTN, Penn State by 17

Prediction: As if four losses in five games wasn't enough, the Nittany Lions had the flu bug go through the team this week. A motivated Rutgers team could put a scare into Happy Valley. Penn State 27, Rutgers 17

No. 7 Michigan (9-1, 6-1) at Maryland (5-5, 2-5)

Time, TV, line: 2:30 p.m., BTN, Michigan by 14½

Prediction: There is no bigger trap spot all season, as the Wolverines are coming off a thrilling win at Penn State and have "The Game" on deck vs. Ohio State. The Terps' capable passing attack offers a chance at a back-door cover. Michigan 30, Maryland 17

Minnesota (6-4, 4-3) at Indiana (2-8, 0-7)

Time, TV, line: 2:30 p.m., BTN, Minnesota by 7

Prediction: This would normally be a lookahead spot for P.J. Fleck's team (with rival Wisconsin on deck), but after a frustrating loss at Iowa this is a get-well game for the run-heavy Golden Gophers. Minnesota 28, Indiana 10 

Nebraska (3-7, 1-6) at No. 20 Wisconsin (7-3, 5-2)

Time, TV, line: 2:30 p.m., ABC, Wisconsin by 9

Prediction: How does Nebraska respond after a bye week and the firing of four offensive coaches? Like the rest of the Cornhuskers' season: Hard to predict. Iowa needs a Nebraska win. But Wisconsin's reliable, physical approach is rolling. Wisconsin 31, Nebraska 13

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.