If Iowa is the smooth sippin’ Tennessee Whisky of football teams, then Illinois is the bottle of Jim Beam you grab when you are low on cash and fucks to give. Both teams made it a point to hit the beautiful game of football with an ugly stick, eschewing offense and aesthetics for wrestling blindfolded in a vat of mayo. As per usual, the Hawkeyes have just been better at getting the pin.
If you take a look at the volume stats, you will see that Illinois averaged 329 yards/game to Iowa’s 303, but Illinois faced an overall slate of softer defenses and had some poor showings against them. (Iowa’s two best games on offense, meanwhile, came against the two worst defenses on its schedule, Kent State and Maryland.) So SP+ actually thinks Iowa has a slightly better offense (93rd to 100) than Illinois. Defensively, Illinois gave up 365 yards/pop, but given the quality of offenses they faced, SP+ puts their defense at 32nd overall. Despite Charlie Jones returning a kickoff for a touchdown against Illinois last year, a sentence that makes me both happy and sad, SP+ thinks Illinois had the best special teams in college football last year. But being discount Iowa was only good enough for a 5-7 record and just missing out on a bowl game.
As was the case with Nevada, I’m having trouble coming up with faux anxiety about this game. It starts with the fact that Iowa rarely ever has problem with Illinois. Even when Illinois is good and Iowa is not, like in 2007, Iowa wins. Iowa has only lost to Illinois twice in the 21st century, and the last one was 14 years ago. Illinois just has not been a problem for Iowa the entirety of my adult life.
The other issue is trying to convince myself Illinois will be a better team in 2022. Chase Brown is a solid running back and Isiah Williams is a problem at wide receiver, but they are replacing a lot of talent that is now in the NFL on the offensive line. They also have the task of replacing the already middling production of quarterback Brandon Peters, which maybe doesn’t sound that difficult, but it remains to be seen if Tommy DeVito is up to that task, however meager.
Defensively, Illinois is left having to replace All-Big Ten safety Kerby Joseph and their top four linebackers from a defense that again, was really good. They are returning talent on the defensive line. And sure, Bret Bielema is a solid enough coach, and who knows, maybe Ryan Walters is the second coming of Phil Parker. But it sure does not seem particularly likely that Illinois is as good defensively in 2022 and improved enough on offense to make up the difference.
With all that said, let’s for the umpteenth time acknowledge Iowa’s miserable offense. In 2021, Illinois was one of a few teams that outgained Iowa but lost anyway. (Illinois generated 312 yards to Iowa’s 255.) The real difference in the game was the kickoff return touchdown and pick-six. Charlie Jones is depressingly playing for the Purdue Boilermakers this season and pick-sixes are as reliable as playoff wins for the Cleveland Browns. When you juggle razor blades while ice-skating as much as Iowa does, you are bound to get nicked every so often. I just hope it isn’t Iowa’s once-a-decade loss to Illinois, because much harder Big Ten West foes await.
Ben’s Anxiety Scale: 4/10
Homer Version: I’m not gonna Illini, this game is gonna be bad for Illinois. The Hawkeyes pummel the orange doffuses who are hilariously trying to rebuild after going 5-7.
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