The Iowa linebacker says the Illini's switch at quarterback will change the game plan slightly Mark Emmert
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Illinois is making a quarterback change for Saturday's game at Iowa, and it might play right into the Hawkeyes’ hands.
Jeff George Jr. is set to make his first start this season when the Illini face Iowa in an 11 a.m. kickoff on what is forecast to be a rainy day at Kinnick Stadium.
George does not like to run. The quarterback he’s replacing, Chayce Crouch, does. Based on recent games, that alone is an advantage for Iowa.
“We know where he’s going to be,” Hawkeye defensive tackle Nathan Bazata said of George. “But just keeping him in there, that’s kind of what we’ve been struggling with two weeks now.”
The Hawkeyes won their first three games and held opposing quarterbacks to negative rushing yards in each. The past two weeks, both losses, Iowa has watched Penn State’s Trace McSorley get loose for 61 yards on the ground and Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke churn out 42 yards. Each quarterback had 15-yard gains in those wins that were deflating for a Hawkeye defense that otherwise held up well.
“We’ve had ends in the DMZ and tackles kind of getting pushed over to one side or the other. It’s just really important for us to stay in our pass-rush lanes,” Bazata said.
“Dead Man’s Zone,” Bazata clarified. “When (defensive ends) get past the quarterback, you’re pretty much playing with 10 players.
“If we can get a three-, four-yard push as tackles and if the ends can squeeze the pocket, that will make him uncomfortable as he’s throwing. That would be big for us.”
So that’s where it starts for Iowa (3-2, 0-2 Big Ten Conference), which is looking to regain positive vibes heading into its bye week and is heavily favored to do so against an extremely raw Illinois team that has already pulled the plug on its starting quarterback.
The Illini (2-2, 0-1) started 10 true freshmen in a Week 3 loss at South Florida. Before that, the most true freshmen to start games in an entire season for Illinois was nine in 1980.
“They have scholarship players just like us,” Iowa linebacker Ben Niemann reasoned, sounding like the senior he is. “You have to show up every game ready to compete or you’re going to get exposed and give up big plays.”
Iowa blanketed Illinois 28-0 a year ago on a blustery day in Champaign.
Hawkeye middle linebacker Josey Jewell had 10 tackles in that game and recalled it as an efficient, balanced effort by the defense he leads. The Hawkeyes had seven tackles for loss and generated two turnovers, forcing Illinois to punt on its first 10 possessions.
That’s the kind of performance Iowa is looking for again Saturday in less-than-ideal weather conditions. It’s a chance for Iowa’s defensive line to assert itself.
“We’re not there yet,” Bazata said of a unit that goes eight players deep but has been disappointed to produce just 8 ½ sacks this season. “We need to take a big step forward this week so coming into our bye week, we can work on our technique more and hopefully keep climbing forward.”
Iowa isn’t doing anything as dramatic as switching quarterbacks, but here are five Hawkeyes that might play a bigger role Saturday, and how that could help the team in a more challenging second half of the season:
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz addresses the possible game action junior safety Brandon Snyder could receive Saturday vs. Illinois. Chad Leistikow/The Register
Last year’s starting free safety was feared to be lost for the season when he tore an ACL in spring practices. Remarkably, the junior suited up last Saturday at Michigan State. Snyder figures to get on the field Saturday.
“He's doing a good job in practice, and I think it's fair to say he may be out there. How much, I don't know yet,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said.
Snyder was initially replaced by Jake Gervase. But Gervase was benched in favor of sophomore Amani Hooker the past three games and hasn’t played a defensive snap in the last two. Snyder would give the Hawkeyes a veteran guiding hand in the back end of the defense, probably allowing for a three-man rotation at safety along with Hooker and senior Miles Taylor.
The redshirt freshman tailback saw his first game action in a Week 3 victory over North Texas. Starter Akrum Wadley tweaked an ankle in that game. Backup James Butler suffered an elbow injury that will sideline him for at least two more weeks.
But Young, after gaining 78 yards against North Texas, hasn’t been seen since. Wadley has been spelled only occasionally by freshman Ivory Kelly-Martin.
Wadley said the plan is to get him some relief this week from both young tailbacks. Ferentz has been hinting at that for weeks as well.
“The other backs have to get ... more involved as we move forward,” Ferentz said. “You just kind of spread those touches around.”
With Butler’s injury sounding as if it could be more serious than originally thought, establishing Young as a bruising change-of-pace back for the shifty Wadley could be more crucial than ever.
Iowa’s offensive line hasn’t looked good in recent weeks, particularly against the Spartans, when Iowa was able to gain only 19 yards on the ground. Injuries have played a part in that, with tackle Ike Boettger lost for the season and guard Boone Myers dealing with a wobbly ankle that is limiting the push he can get.
Paulsen, a sophomore from Moville, played extensively in the win at Illinois last year but hasn’t been used this season. This may be the week that changes, if only to try to get two weeks of rest for Myers.
“He's probably in the top seven right now, I think, based on our situation,” Ferentz said of Paulsen, who is listed as the second-string right guard. “He's fine physically now … he's in the equation for sure.”
The hulking freshman offensive tackle saw a few snaps against North Texas but was injured in practice the next week and hasn’t played since. The Hawkeyes are already playing two tackles who weren’t listed as starters there heading into the season — redshirt freshman Alaric Jackson and senior Sean Welsh, whose best position is guard. So getting the 6-foot-5, 315-pound Wirfs into that mix could be extremely beneficial.
“We're not as deep as we thought we'd be or hoped to be” on the offensive line, Ferentz said. “I think we've seen (Wirfs) improve now the last couple weeks.”
For a while last week, it appeared as if Iowa might be making a switch to the true freshman punter. Sophomore Colten Rastetter has yet to distinguish himself (39.7-yard average) in his first year as the starter and had a particularly rough first half against the Spartans, leaving his team at a field position disadvantage. Gersonde, a Wisconsin native on scholarship, was warming up in earnest at halftime but Iowa punted only once in the second half, deep in its own territory, and Rastetter responded with his best punt of the game, a 40-yarder with solid hang time.
Still, a team that is struggling to run the ball and is relying on its defense to win games, could use more of a lift from its punter. Ferentz wasn’t tipping his hand this week on who will punt, but did say “we’re keeping an open mind.”
“We'll let the guys compete again in practice, see how it goes,” he added.
ILLINOIS (2-2, 0-1 Big Ten) AT IOWA (3-2, 0-2)
WHERE: Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City
TIME/TV: 11:01 a.m., BTN (announcers: Brandon Gaudin, Glen Mason, Elise Menaker)
LINE: Hawkeyes by 17½
WEATHER: 69 degrees and rainy; winds from south-southwest at 15-25 mph
OF NOTE: Iowa is 13-5 in homecoming games under coach Kirk Ferentz