Hawkeyes Gameday: Keys to victory vs. Illinois

Rick Brown


Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt (12) throws a pass in the second quarter of the game against the Iowa Hawkeyes in 2014.

The Big Ten’s leading receiver started his college career at Iowa Western of Council Bluffs. He’s Illinois wide receiver Geronimo Allison. He comes to Kinnick Stadium as the league’s leader in both receptions (32) and receiving yards (453). He also ranks in the top 20 nationally in both categories.

Allison had eight catches for 91 yards in last week’s 14-13 victory over Nebraska, including the winning touchdown catch with 10 seconds to play.  Allison now has 1,051 receiving yards for his Illinois career. Allison was a second-team junior college all-American after having 69 catches for 872 yards and eight touchdowns as a sophomore at Iowa Western.

Junior wide receiver Matt VandeBerg leads Iowa and ranks second in the Big Ten with 31 receptions. He has at least six receptions in four of five games so far.

The real Wes Lunt: When Iowa won at Illinois last November, 30-14, quarterback Wes Lunt was a bit rusty. Playing for the first time since breaking his leg against Purdue Oct. 4, Lunt completed 14 of 25 passes for 102 yards and a touchdown against the Hawkeyes.

“Standing out on the field, I didn't feel like he was all there,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “He's a much better player than that. So I'm guessing he was probably still hurting a little bit. I can't even remember what the injury was, but that was not a fair representation of the kind of player he is. What we're seeing right now is.”

Lunt, a transfer from Oklahoma State, has completed 111 of 191 passes for 1,107 yards, eight touchdowns and two interceptions this season. His arm may be even more important Saturday if Josh Ferguson, the team’s No. 1 rusher, can’t play because of a shoulder injury sustained against Nebraska last week.

Turnover turnaround: Iowa has scored 41 points off turnovers this season, including all 10 in last week’s victory at Wisconsin. The Hawkeyes scored just 35 points off turnovers the entire 2014 season.

Iowa (+3) and Illinois (+4) both have 10 takeaways this season. Both teams have seven interceptions, which ties for the lead in the Big Ten. Iowa cornerback Desmond King leads the conference with his five interceptions. Taylor Barton of Illinois is tied for second with three picks.

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C.J.’s perfect record: Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard is 6-0 as a starter. That includes a 24-10 victory at Purdue as a junior. Beathard is 3-0 at home, 3-0 on the road. The last Iowa quarterback to win his first six career starts was Matt Sherman. He won his first seven starts bridging the 1994 and 1995 seasons.

Iowa and Illinois are also undefeated in Big Ten play at 1-0. The last time these schools met undefeated in league play was in 1983. The fourth-ranked Hawkeyes got spanked in Champaign, 33-0. Unranked Illinois went on to win the Big Ten championship and go to the Rose Bowl under coach Mike White.

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Focus on special teams: One of the brightest spots in Iowa’s unblemished season to date is improved special teams play.

“I think we're doing a much better job in the special teams regard,” Ferentz said. “That was something that really needed to be addressed. You know, we just were OK a year ago, and five games into it I think we've made marked improvement.”

The placekicking of Marshall Koehn and the punting of Dillon Kidd have been solid to date. Not as obvious is the work of long snapper Tyler Kluver.

“He’s done a really nice job quietly, and that's the way we want to keep it,” Ferentz said.

King has consistently given Iowa good field position while averaging 18.7 yards in punt returns and 22.5 yards in kickoff returns.

“He’s given us a little bit of octane as our return guy,” Ferentz said.

One blemish came in the third game against Pitt. Kidd had a punt blocked that resulted in a Panthers’ touchdown that tied the game, 17-17, in the third quarter. And beware. Illinois has three blocked kicks this season. Two of the blocks came on punts and were returned for touchdowns.