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Could the Hawkeyes have Fant and Hockenson on the field together? Rodney White, rodwhite@dmreg.com

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Look, if last week's onomatopoeia word was thud, then we've moved straight on to kersplat.

I'm no sugar-coater: These Hawkeyes are free falling. Now, the goals of the season are gone. But there are two regular-season games and a bowl left to go. And a decent bowl is still in play. So there's reason to pay attention as Iowa hopes to find a get-well game in lowly Illinois (2:30 p.m., Big Ten Network). 

Let's take a peek at Iowa's projected starters for the week.

OFFENSE

Quarterback: No. 4, Nate Stanley (6-foot-4, 242 pounds, junior)  An average of 6.6 yards per pass attempt might work if you're Northwestern, plowing ahead for almost 200 yards on the ground. That average doesn't exactly work if you're Iowa, where the running game is struggling. The Hawkeyes have been at their best when they've been aggressive; it would be good for Stanley and offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz to remember that.  

Running back: No. 10, Mekhi Sargent (5-10, 210, sophomore) After starting the season as the clear No. 3 afterthought in the ground game, Sargent is just 26 yards behind Toren Young for the top stats spot on the season. He runs hard, runs with purpose and is a dependable receiver. He's deserving of this role the rest of the way, if you ask me.

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Iowa running back Mekhi Sargent arrived as a largely unknown junior-college running back in June. He's become a key contributor. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

Fullback: No. 46, Austin Kelly (5-11, 245, senior)  None of the coaches would ever say this out loud, but I also wonder what effect Brady Ross' extended absence has had on the Iowa rushing game, particularly near the trench line. Although the chunk-play capability of the ground game has been almost equally inept before the Indiana game (three running plays of 20 yards or more in six contests, and just one above 30) as it has since (two plays 20 yards or more in four games, and none above 30).

Tight end: No. 87, Noah Fant (6-5, 241, Jr.)  Wherefore art thou? No. 1 on the depth, equally as high in your hearts ... and seemingly way too low on Iowa coaches' priority lists. Yikes.

LEISTIKOW:There's still no good answer to the Noah Fant question

Tight end: No. 38, T.J. Hockenson (6-5, 250, Soph.) — This tight end isn't a specialist! He's Nate Stanley's favorite target now, and the go-to in clutch situations. Seven catches and 89 yards later against Northwestern, and he shares the team lead with Nick Easley.at overall receptions with 39.

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Iowa tight end T.J. Hockenson says the offense doesn't focus on the opponent as much as it does just trying to be better than the week before Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

Split end: No. 12, Brandon Smith (6-3, 219, Soph.)  Smith's absence from the field should be brief, but it was notable last week. Iowa could have used any sort of dynamism in the aerial attack. Expect the Hawkeyes respond with some vengeance. Too-little-too-late vengeance, but vengeance. 

Wide receiver: No. 84, Nick Easley (5-11, 205, Sr.)  The truest version of a collegiate slot wideout. Easley shares the lead in team catches ... and averages nine yards even per grab. That number needs to be higher, no matter one's limitations.

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Left tackle: No. 77, Alaric Jackson (6-7, 320, Soph.)  There were a lot of negative superlatives for the Iowa offense this past week. The abysmal rush offense can take much of the blame. But some rapid-fire ... Iowa set season-lows in time of possession per drive (1 minutes, 34 seconds) ...

Left guard: No. 59, Ross Reynolds (6-4, 295, Sr.)  ... and average plays per drive (five, among 65 plays overall) ...

Center: No. 69, Keegan Render (6-4, 307, Sr.)  ... and even yards per drive (25.6).

CHRIS DOYLE:Strength coach still bullish amid Hawkeyes' struggles

Right guard: No. 61, Cole Banwart (6-4, 296, Soph.)  Another damning rush statistic: Iowa has outrushed its opponents by more than 500 yards this season (1,475-960). And yet the yards-per-carry average isn't even a full yard more than their foes (3.8 to 3.0). Iowa has had the opportunity to run the ball 69 more times than its foes but isn't making much advantage of that relative clock control.

Right tackle: No. 74, Tristan Wirfs (6-5, 320, Soph.) One last dagger twist, I suppose: Iowa has outgained its opponents by almost 1,000 yards this season (3,857-2,859) ... and is 6-4. Many, many stats say this team should be better than it is. The narrative of a "lost season" isn't altogether outlandish.

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Iowa right tackle Tristan Wirfs discusses moving forward off the team's third straight loss. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

DEFENSE

Left end: No. 98, Anthony Nelson (6-7, 271, Jr.)  The Iowa front four was pummeled in the second half: Northwestern had 231 yards and 5.17 yards per carry. (There will be more.)

Left tackle: No. 90, Sam Brincks (6-5, 275, Sr.)  Those totals after an utterly dominant first half: 75 yards allowed, 2 per rush, 2.78 per play and not even 12 minutes of possession for the Wildcats.

BOWL-GAME SCENARIOS:Where might the Hawkeyes go?

Right tackle: No. 96, Matt Nelson (6-8, 295, Sr.) — Wrapping this thread line ... 4.71 yards per play were available for the Wildcats after halftime, and they held the ball for an astonishing 19:30. Bottom line: Northwestern made the right adjustments; Iowa didn't.

Right end: No. 40, Parker Hesse (6-3, 261, Sr.)  Hesse had five tackles and a couple of hurries of quarterback Clayton Thorson, but he was really the only other D-line member to show up beyond Chauncey Golston, who continues to impress. Even A.J. Epenesa (three tackles, a sack) was somewhat quiet.

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Parker Hesse: 'It just comes down to focusing each and every play' Dargan Southard, msouthard@gannett.com

Outside linebacker: No. 49 Nick Niemann (6-4, 232, Soph.)  Niemann has a ways to go in his overall learning process, but he saw more time this past week than he has since his brief injury, and he was more active in the middle (four tackles) than in games past as well.

Middle linebacker: No. 48, Jack Hockaday (6-1, 235, Sr.)  Hockaday surged ahead in that battle with Kristian Welch by logging a seven-tackle performance last week. But even that effort wasn't without its notable foibles, including a couple miscues covering Isaiah Bowser in the flat.

Weak-side linebacker: No. 32, Djimon Colbert (6-1, 234, freshman) Colbert continues to play beyond his years, as another seven-tackle effort in the middle helped flash his enormous potential once again.

TOGETHERNESS: Iowa insists it isn't 'falling apart'

Left cornerback: No. 8, Matt Hankins (6-1, 185, Soph.)  Between the injuries and the suspension, there was a fair question as to whether Hankins might even be redshirted late this season, given the new four-game rule. But not only did Hankins start over Julius Brents last week, the latter didn't even play. And depth-chart changes were wholesale at the corner spot (more later).

Strong safety: No. 27, Amani Hooker (6-0, 210, Jr.)  Hooker continues to display his reliable flexibility. Six tackles, broke up a pass, had a sack. Stands to reason he'll be the leader of the secondary next year. 

Free safety: No. 30, Jake Gervase (6-1, 212, Sr.)  Gervase was a busy man in the secondary, cleaning up on tackles on long runs and slot-area passes alike. Easily led the Hawkeyes with 10 last weekend.

Right cornerback: No. 11, Michael Ojemudia (6-1, 199, Jr.) — The other half of that depth-chart switch-up, Ojemudia is back in over Riley Moss, who had been the listed starter at the position for the past five weeks running. The Ankeny Centeninal true freshman had taken his lumps in coverage in recent weeks.

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Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz discusses the big-picture fork in the road ahead after three losses by a combined 12 points. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

SPECIAL TEAMS

Kicker: No. 91, Miguel Recinos (6-1, 193, Sr.)  Not even the senior kicker was immune from struggle last week. He nailed a 46-yard kick during the game, but he also clanked a 38-yarder off the upright.

Punter: No. 7, Colten Rastetter (6-1, 213, Jr.) — Opposing special-teams units have figured out Colten Rastetter's line-drive rugby game. They're clogging return lanes and limiting his effectiveness. Seven punts last week netted an average of just 34.9 yards per kick. That's ... well, frankly, that's atrocious.

Kickoff returns: No. 6, Ihmir Smith-Marsette (6-1, 175, Soph.)  Smith-Marsette was the closet thing to a big-play spark Iowa had last week. He roped off another 43-yard kickoff return in this game, and his 28-yard touchdown grab was the Hawkeyes' lone trip to the end zone. 

Punt returns: No. 14, Kyle Groeneweg (5-10, 186, Sr.) A couple of returns that ended up losing yardage, all told. It seems clear Groeneweg hasn't really had a mental recovery since his gaffe in the Wisconsin game. Iowa's punt returners have largely returned to their previously frustrating, timid approach.

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Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz proactively addressed some of his postgame comments regarding the deployment of Iowa tight end Noah Fant, then took questions. Hawk Central

ILLINOIS PROJECTED STARTERS

OFFENSE

Quarterback: No. 1, A.J. Bush Jr. (6-4, 225, Sr.)

Running back: No. 2, Reggie Corbin (5-10, 190, Jr.)

Wide receiver: No. 4, Ricky Smalling (6-1, 205, Soph.)

Wide receiver: No. 9, Sam Mays (6-3, 200, Sr.)

Wide receiver: No. 15, Trenard Davis (6-0, 195, Jr.)

Tight end: No. 36, Austin Roberts (6-2, 245, Sr.)

Left tackle: No. 79, Veredian Lowe (6-6, 315, Soph.)

Left guard: No. 55, Kendrick Green (6-4, 300, Fr.)

Center: No. 65, Doug Kramer (6-2, 305, Soph.)

Right guard: No. 53, Nick Allegretti (6-4, 320, Sr.)

Right tackle: No. 63, Alex Palczewski (6-6, 300, Soph.)

DEFENSE

Defensive end: No. 97, Bobby Roundtree (6-5, 255, Soph.)

Defensive end: No. 99, Owen Carney (6-3, 255, Soph.)

Defensive tackle: No. 96, Tymir Oliver (6-4, 290, Jr.)

Defensive tackle: No. 55, Jamal Milan (6-3, 305, Jr.)

Linebacker: No. 35, Jake Hansen (6-1, 230, Soph.)

Linebacker: No. 3, Del'Shawn Phillips (6-2, 230, Sr.)

Nickelback: No. 15, Delano Ware (6-0, 200, Fr.)

Cornerback: No. 8, Nate Hobbs (6-0, 185, Soph.)

Cornerback: No. 21, Jartavius Martin (6-0, 190, Fr.)

Safety: No. 30, Sydney Brown (6-0, 195, Fr.)

Safety: No. 6, Tony Adams (6-0, 190, Soph.)

SPECIAL TEAMS

Kicker: No. 43, Chase McLaughlin (6-1, 190, Sr.)

Punter: No. 14, Blake Hayes (6-6, 230, Soph.)

Kickoff and punt returns: Unavailable

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