For No. 16 Iowa, a win Saturday means a spot in the Big Ten championship game. For Illinois, a win Saturday means a bowl berth. But there’s at least one big question affecting this game that likely won’t be answered until Senior Day kickoff at Iowa: Who’ll start at quarterback for Illinois?
Will it be senior backup John Paddock, who threw for a Memorial Stadium-record 507 yards in his first Illinois start and earned Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week honors after leading the Illini (5-5, 3-4) to a 48-45 overtime win over Indiana?
Or will it be usual starter Luke Altmyer, who sat out last week’s game with a concussion but has been cleared to play? It’s not Illinois coach Bret Bielema’s style to penalize a starter for getting hurt.
“I’ve never been a coach that has ever put a player (out of) a position that they’ve lost by injury,” Bielema said Monday. “Obviously, John has played exceptionally well, from the time he entered the game two weeks ago at Minnesota to the way he played last week. I think our guys will know the plan very clear Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and we’ll make a decision as it gets closer. The good news is that we feel we’ve got two guys that we feel can play.”
Perhaps the Paddock/Altmyer debate doesn’t address the biggest question of all: Will Illinois be able to score a touchdown against Iowa (8-2, 5-2) regardless of who’s running the offense?
Over the last four weeks, the Hawkeyes have surrendered just one touchdown. For the year, Iowa has given up 11 touchdowns in 10 games while building the nation’s third-best scoring defense (12.3 points per game) and fourth-best pass-efficiency defense (100.14 rating).
“We’re clearly a better defense than we were 6-8 weeks ago,” said Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz. “But that’s what you hope for with all your guys. You hope they’re all improving. The guys have played well. They work hard in practice. They prepare. They study. And then the other component is, you gain some confidence when you do have success.”
“They’re just so, so consistent,” said Illinois offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. “They make you earn every, every inch that you get. They make you earn it. And they very rarely make mistakes. That’s probably the unique nature of it is they’re just so rigid and systematic and they’re physical and tough. A lot of good qualities I’m describing. All these adjectives I’m saying would be the earmark of a great defense – and that’s what this is.”
Junior defensive back Cooper DeJean serves as the poster boy for Iowa’s defense. DeJean was named a Bednarik Award semifinalist this week – keeping him in the running for National Defensive Player of the Year – to go with his semifinalist status for the Jim Thorpe Award and the LOTT Impact Trophy.
On the flip side, Iowa’s offense hasn’t exactly been prolific. Last week’s 22-point outburst against Rutgers represented the Hawkeyes’ second-biggest Big Ten output this season. To put it a different way: Paddock threw for more yards last week (507) than Iowa quarterback Deacon Hill has thrown for in the last four weeks (441).
Ferentz, though, cares about only one number: The one in the win column. The Hawkeyes need just one win in the next two weeks to clinch their second West Division crown in the last three years.
“One thing you try to explain to the players – and I think they’ve figured this out,” Ferentz said. “There’s really no downside to winning and there’s a lot of downside to losing.”
–Field Level Media
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