Hawkeyes try to avoid letdown at Illinois
By DAVID MERCER
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — A week ago, Iowa was trying to figure if there was any way to bounce back from a stunning blowout loss at Penn State.
The Hawkeyes (6-4, 4-3 Big Ten) found the answer with a 14-13 win over Michigan that was as unexpected as the 27-point loss to the Nittany Lions.
“I guarantee it, none of us expected that outcome,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said of the Penn State game as his team prepared to face Illinois this Saturday. “And then conversely, there are probably not a lot of people expecting the outcome we got the other night.”
Illinois (3-7, 2-5) finds itself in a spot similar to the one the Hawkeyes were in a week ago, looking for a way back after a 48-3 loss at Wisconsin. The game was bad enough that Illini coach Lovie Smith said watching game film wouldn’t do his team any good.
“I didn’t spend a whole lot of time on it. You guys saw it — not much to get from it,” Smith said.
Both teams are in the Big Ten West but they haven’t played much over the past decade. Before Iowa’s wins the past two seasons, the last time Illinois faced Iowa was 2008. That was also the last Illini win in the series, 27-24.
Some things to watch for when they meet again Saturday in Champaign:
TURNING IT OVER
One of Iowa’s clear advantages is its ability to hang onto the ball. The Hawkeyes have given the ball away just seven times this season — six of them interceptions — while forcing 14 turnovers.
This is an area where Illinois was strong early in the season but has lately struggled. Over the past four games the Illini have given up nine turnovers — including four interceptions in the Wisconsin loss — and forced just two.
Illinois starting quarterback Wes Lunt is expected to start his first game since suffering a back injury Oct. 8 against Purdue. He played for the first time since the injury when he relieved Jeff George Jr. last week against the Badgers. Lunt says he wondered for a time if he might have played his last college football.
“I think after the initial (hit), when it happened, I was kind of worried about that,” said Lunt, who stayed on the turf for several minutes after the hit by Purdue’s Danny Ezechukwu.
Games in Champaign this fall have been played in warm, mild weather, but Saturday should be different. The National Weather Service forecasts a high of 43 with gusty winds up to 18 mph.
“Looks like we’re going to have Big Ten weather,” Ferentz said. “I’m guessing it will be a tough, gritty game.”
Both teams have run-heavy offenses, and the weather figures to give both an incentive to stick to the ground. But there’s a chance the teams will pile up some big rushing yards. Neither defense is much of a run-stopper — Illinois allows 209 rushing yards a game, 11th in Big Ten, while Iowa gives up 168.7 yards and is ranked 10th.
Ferentz said that starting cornerback Greg Mabin and starting right tackle Cole Croston will both be out with injuries. Mabin’s season is done due to a leg fracture, but his replacement, freshman Manny Rugamba, had a strong first game against the Wolverines.
“Manny didn’t have a lot of time to think about it, that may be good. I don’t know if it dawned on him how good the guys he was going to be competing with were,” Ferentz said.