Addressing Hawkeye fans' concerns entering Illinois matchup

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Hawkeye fans, you’ve read all about New Kirk, the C.J. Beathard decision and the general awesomeness of Drew Ott and Desmond King. All of that and more have helped Iowa to its second 5-0 football start in 20 years.

Once-in-a-decade excitement is at a rolling boil. But maybe you’re not letting yourselves enjoy it — because, even as your head coach talked Tuesday about the positives of the switch to morning practices, he added: “I'm still waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

Saturday’s 11 a.m. Homecoming matchup with Illinois is filled with reasons for trepidation. While Las Vegas picks the Hawkeyes to win by 11 points, you’re also aware that in the last five years as a double-digit favorite, Iowa has lost outright five of 17 times.

Many of you are buying back in — Iowa has sold more than 66,000 tickets for Saturday, a healthy boost over the average 59,709 that Kinnick Stadium comfortably housed for the first three. But you’re worried. You've been disappointed before.

With that backdrop, here are some of fans' concerns about the 5-0 Hawkeyes and Saturday’s matchup — along with a "concern rating" (with 1 being not valid, 10 being “close your eyes and hold on”):

CJB and Iowa’s offense were exposed vs. Wisconsin

True, if the defense hadn’t been Herculean in pulling out Saturday’s 10-6 win in Madison, we’d probably be talking a lot more about Beathard’s most ineffective outing as a starting quarterback. He went 9-for-21 for 77 yards and committed two turnovers from Iowa territory.

“We left some plays out there,” Beathard admitted.

But let’s give Beathard and offensive coordinator Greg Davis a hall pass in a slugfest victory. It was a gusty day — Beathard missed throws he doesn’t usually miss. However, a lot wasn't asked of his arm. Beathard threw only four passes on 26 first-down plays — a drop by Jacob Hillyer, a 1-yard touchdown to George Kittle, a poorly thrown incompletion and a deep pass to Hillyer that netted pass interference. When he did pass, Wisconsin knew he was going to pass.

And before blaming Davis’ play-calling, consider that Jordan Canzeri was extremely effective in a run-first approach vs. the outside-attacking Badgers — running 16 times for 83 yards on first down. With a beautiful Saturday in the forecast, look for more diversified play calls against the Illini.

“We should be better this week,” Beathard said. “Nothing’s going to be perfect, but you can expect to see a better offensive show, hopefully.”

Concern rating: 3.

Iowa’s wide receivers can’t get separation vs. defenders

The Hawkeyes agree with you. Beathard’s response: It’s not as easy as you think, and it’s on him to complete passes even when they’re not open.

“College football, it’s hard to find guys wide open. You’re going to have to be throwing balls into tight spaces,” Beathard said. “It’s never like it is in routes on air, it’s always different when guys are covering them. It’s never the same spacing and everything, it’s a little bit different in game speed. That’s part of the game, we just have to know that.”

Look for more creative tight-end usage as Jake Duzey's knee improves, and Davis can’t forget about Canzeri out of the backfield — he’s Iowa’s second-leading receiver (14 catches), but has just two grabs in the last two weeks.

Concern rating: 6.

This team can’t weather another key injury

If that player is Beathard, that’s absolutely true. Dreams of a Big Ten West championship would be gone if the Hawkeyes’ QB1 is lost for any significant amount of time. Fans and Kirk Ferentz alike would be very happy if redshirt freshman Tyler Wiegers’ only snaps this year are of the mop-up variety. This is a standing concern.

The Hawkeyes have been resilient. Injuries have beset their preseason No. 1 running back (LeShun Daniels hasn’t been effective since hurting his right ankle vs. Iowa State), No. 1 left tackle (Boone Myers might be out again this week with a stinger), No. 1 defensive lineman (Ott was limited or out for 2½ games with a dislocated elbow) and now their No. 1 receiver (Tevaun Smith).

Smith's knee injury is high on fans’ worry list. He’s the passing game’s big-play threat and is out until at least Oct. 31 vs. Maryland. Last week, Beathard and true freshman Jerminic Smith had a tough time connecting.

“Some of that was how the game was. Offensively, we weren’t doing great,” Beathard said. “We’ve been working a lot in practice this week, and getting on the same page.”

In order, players Iowa can’t afford to lose: 1. Beathard; 2. King; 3. Canzeri; 4. Ott (again); 5. Austin Blythe.

Concern rating: 7 overall, 10 if it’s Beathard.

Speaking of Canzeri: He can’t keep up this workload

You want wins, right? Iowa’s best strategy through five games has been giving Canzeri the ball as much as possible — including a career-high 26 carries at Wisconsin — and letting him work behind effective inside play from center Blythe, right guard Jordan Walsh and rotating left guards Sean Welsh and James Daniels.

The 5-foot-9, 192-pound fifth-year senior has an injury history, but he’s not showing signs of a slowdown. He has the best vision of any Hawkeye back, he provides zip and big-play potential, and he’s the best non-fullback at blitz pick-up. (That last one is an underappreciated key in protecting Beathard.)

“If my team’s going to depend on me or ask me to do something, I’m going to give it my all,” Canzeri said. “And I’m going to do whatever’s possible in me to help them.”

Yes, Iowa would love Daniels’ to return to Week 1 form/health (26 carries, 123 yards vs. Illinois State) but Canzeri is its best backfield option. And until he gets hurt, there’s no sense going away from what’s working.

Concern rating: 2.

Illinois, Wes Lunt present a scary matchup

Lunt, the Oklahoma State transfer, might be one of the best quarterbacks Iowa faces the rest of the season, along with Indiana’s Nate Sudfeld and Nebraska’s Tommy Armstrong. Lunt leads the Big Ten’s No. 3 passing offense, and you can’t take comfort in Iowa overwhelming Illinois, 30-14, in November. That was Lunt’s first game back after suffering a broken leg.

“Standing out on the field, I didn't feel like he was all there,” Ferentz said. “... He's a much better player than that.”

Lunt brings a confident Illini group into Kinnick — one that is fast-paced (averaging 79.5 plays a game, 11 more than Iowa) and coming off a 14-13 win over Nebraska.

Illinois (4-1, 1-0) is thinking Big Ten West title, too. Iowa will get the Illini’s best shot with two weeks until their next game, vs. Wisconsin.

“We know this game is going to be a huge stepping stone for us, to have a two-game winning streak in our first two games going into a bye week,” two-way star V’Angelo Bentley said. “It’s going to be big for us."

Concern rating: 8.

This feels like a classic 'sandwich' spot for Iowa

After an emotional win at then-No. 19 Wisconsin and unbeaten No. 13 Northwestern on deck, sure, that thinking exists. But the Hawkeyes have impressed Ferentz with their ability to maintain a sharp focus on every opponent.

It would be a shame to drop out of the top 25 the week after achieving Iowa’s first national ranking (No. 22 AP, No. 23 coaches) in five years.

“I definitely don’t think this is a letdown opportunity, because Illinois is a good team. They’re 4-1,” Blythe said. “They’ve won plenty of games. They’re going to be ready to go.”

Concern rating: 3.

When is it time to book a hotel room in Indianapolis?

It’s great just to mention Iowa and the possibility of a first Big Ten Championship Game appearance. But before looking into the future, make sure to enjoy the present. As mentioned, 5-0 starts at Iowa don’t come along too often (just in 2015 and 2009 under Ferentz).

If Iowa gets past Illinois — the halfway point of the season — with a zero in the loss column, a huge matchup at Northwestern awaits. You all know how many times the Wildcats have side-tracked a Hawkeye season (including in 2009).

But if Iowa gets to 7-0 and Beathard is still healthy entering the bye week, break out the Amex — just make sure the room is refundable.

Concern rating: 1.

NO. 22 IOWA (5-0, 1-0 BIG TEN) VS. ILLINOIS (4-1, 1-0)

Time, place: 11 a.m. Saturday, Kinnick Stadium

TV: ESPN2 (Announcers: Clay Matvick and John Congemi)

The line: Iowa is favored by 11

Forecast: Sunny with a high of 72 degrees, light wind.