Inconsistent Iowa offense gets a perfect matchup in leaky Illinois defense
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The Iowa offense has been looking inward all season.
That’s how sophomore tight end T.J. Hockenson explained things this week, trying to help reporters understand how the Hawkeyes could score 30 points or more in five games, while having little to show in recent losses to Penn State and Northwestern.
“That’s our entire goal during the course of the year, during the course of the game, is to be better than we were the week before. It’s not what any opponent does. It’s what we do to ourselves,” Hockenson said. “That’s what we talk about each week, not just the last three or the next two. We haven’t been looking at the opponent the entire year.”
Iowa might want to take a real close look at the opponent Saturday.
Illinois (4-6, 2-5 Big Ten Conference) fields one of the most abysmal defenses in college football. Hockenson and the Hawkeyes should be sprinting onto the field for a 2:30 p.m. game at Memorial Stadium.
It’s exactly the kind of team you want to face when trying to shake loose from a three-game losing streak. It’s exactly the kind of defense Iowa (6-4, 3-4) should be able to shake loose from.
“I can’t just sit here and be negative because there’s a lot of good things that are on film. And there’s a lot of improvement from week to week,” Hockenson said of an offense that didn’t produce a touchdown three weeks ago in a 30-24 loss at Penn State and rushed for only 64 yards last week in a 14-10 home loss to Northwestern.
“I like to believe that we have a solid offense.”
Illinois counters with a liquid defense. The Illini have been taking on water all Big Ten season, starting with a 63-24 demolition by Penn State, which gained 591 total yards. Purdue put up 611 yards, Wisconsin 545, Maryland an astonishing 712. Nebraska settled for 606 in a 54-35 win last Saturday.
You get the picture.
Now the question is how well does Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley.
The junior has been inconsistent with his throws this season, although he has passed for 2,308 yards and 18 touchdowns. It wasn’t long ago that he was toying with Minnesota and Indiana, with 10 touchdowns in back-to-back wins. The firepower has been there against bad defenses.
Hockenson has become Stanley’s most productive receiver. And, whatever happens with the playing time of junior tight end Noah Fant, there will be plenty of opportunities to target the 6-foot-5 Hockenson, who has 39 catches for a team-leading 615 yards.
“T.J.’s done a really good job at becoming a better route runner. He’s got great hands and makes a lot of those contested plays,” Stanley said.
It will certainly help, with rain in the forecast, if Iowa can get a running game established as well. The good news is Illinois has been an equal-opportunity pushover, ranking last in the Big Ten in yards allowed on the ground (248) and in the air (285). The Illini have given up 51 touchdowns, nine more than the next-worst league team, Rutgers.
“We just haven't gotten it to the point where we'd like to,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said of a backfield that has yet to produce a 100-yard rusher this season and is glaringly lacking in big-play opportunities. “We've got two games left, so this would be a great time to get it started.”
Last week, the Wildcats blitzed Iowa every time they sensed a running play coming. It worked. Illinois, led by former Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith, surely noticed this.
“Maybe some team will see what Northwestern did and try to emulate that. It doesn’t really matter what the defense does. It just matters about our execution and how we handle those,” Stanley said.
“(We have to) run the ball the other way or change the play at the line of scrimmage. Try to take advantage of it.”
The Illini, who use man-to-man coverage, may borrow Northwestern’s scheme. But they can’t borrow the Wildcats’ players.
This is the ideal get-well-quick opportunity for Iowa’s offense. Stanley was too polite to eagerly rub his hands together in front of reporters Tuesday. He didn’t have to. The message was clear.
“I’m excited to finish up this week of practice and preparation and go out there and compete again and get back on the right track,” Stanley said.
IOWA (6-4, 3-4) at ILLINOIS (4-6, 2-5)
When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Memorial Stadium, Champaign, Ill.
TV: BTN (Lisa Byington, J Leman)
Line: Hawkeyes by 14 1/2
Weather: Cloudy and 38 degrees; occasional rain showers in afternoon; winds from NNE at 10-15 mph