SOC - Iowa
This late in a season, I'm always looking for comps. Does this feel like 2014, when we were 4-6 and had given up on a bowl before two shocking victories, or does this feel like 2009, where we beat Minnesota in early November and started to think "you know, maybe we're not as bad as we thought" before three losses to close the season.
Let's investigate 2014. Lots of comps there, obviously. Beckman's third season. Really struggling in the first game against a bad team. Three consecutive Big Ten losses (that season it was Nebraska - Purdue - Wisconsin, this season it was Purdue - Wisconsin - Maryland) and everyone had given up. Then, out of nowhere, a home win over Minnesota. Just when there was hope again, we lose to move to 4-6 and the season is totally over.
Hmmm... there are a lot of comps between that Penn State game and this Iowa game. Both Penn State and Iowa were/are 6-4. Both were supposed to be better than that, but some tough losses have them reeling. After losing to Illinois and then Michigan State to finish 6-6, Penn State fans wanted James Franklin run out of town. (If Iowa loses to Illinois and then Nebraska, Iowa fans will want Kirk Ferentz run out of town.)
And from what I remember of that Penn State team, it was all defense (this Iowa team is all defense). Specifically run defense. It kept them in every game, but they just didn't have the offense to hang with solid opponents. Hey, that's this Iowa team?
The big difference, obviously, is the Illinois team they were facing. At the end of the 2014 season, Illinois finally had the defense clicking. After a bad 2012 defense and an awful 2013 defense, 2014 was a big step forward (and then 2015 was a top-15 defense). And late in the season, the defense had made big strides.
That's not a comp to this current Illini defense. This defense is headed for the worst statistical season of our lifetimes. Yes, I'm 46, and this defense is worse than 2013, worse than 2005, worse than 1996, worse than anything in the 70's. Sure, the season isn't over, and with two great performances the defense could still technically finish better than some of those seasons. But as of right now, it's the worst.
Which is where the 2014 and 2018 comparisons stop, right? Illinois held Penn State to 14 points on that cold day in that empty stadium in 2014. I don't think there's any chance at all that Illinois holds Iowa to 14 points tomorrow. If feels like the two Iowa tight ends will score 21 points by themselves. Before halftime.
Every scenario I try to think through here that might end up with an Illini win (WHAT IF WE GOT FIVE TAKEAWAYS?) ends with Iowa still putting up 525 yards despite those five turnovers. Yes, they don't have a "good" offense, but neither did Maryland, and Maryland put up 712 yards.
Everything comes back to this defense. They're down two assistant coaches (Abraham and Nickerson). They're coached by two converted GA's, a defensive line coach who was a GA at USC last year, and first-year secondary coach Gil Byrd. I just can't see that staff engineering a late season defensive turnaround. Yes, the playcalling looked better with Lovie calling the plays against Minnesota, but even with "better playcalling" (whatever that means on defense), I still think this defense will be overmatched.
I do think we make a push for a fifth win in one of these last two games. It's probably way more likely that this happens at home than on the road. But right now, sitting here, rambling on with my Stream Of Consciousness, I just can't see that game being this game. Next week at Northwestern it is.
This game? I'm guessing Corbin is out, and with Epstein out, it means the home run ball is off the table. And without the home run ball, our running game, while still able to pick up yards, even on a top-10 rushing defense like Iowa, will probably be limited to... half the normal rushing yards?
Which means we'll have to throw to move the ball, and I just don't think this offense can do that. Last week's drops are still ringing in my ears. We haven't really shown a true passing game this season, and I doubt we start with two game left.
I do think it will be lower-scoring. I don't think Iowa will get into the 50's. But I don't think we can keep it close. The line is 14, but this one feels bigger than that.
Iowa 40, Illinois 17