Ball State Illinois Football

Illinois running back Mike Epstein runs the ball during Illinois' season opener against Ball State.

BRADLEY LEEB

Four things the football teams from Iowa and Illinois can do to position themselves for success in Saturday's 11 a.m. game at Kinnick Stadium:

Illinois (2-2, 0-1)

1. Hold up up front

For Illinois to have a chance, it must at a minimum neutralize the strength Iowa has on its lines.

While the Illini made solid off-season gains in the weight room, that hasn't translated to success in the trenches so far this season. Nebraska manhandled Illinois up front last week, adding to issues on both offense and defense.

Illinois' defense is allowing 179.5 rushing yards per game, a number that ranks last in the Big Ten.

With one freshman and two sophomores in the starting defensive front four, the Illini have struggled in consecutive losses to South Florida and Nebraska to deal with physical offensive line play. They'll see more of the same from Iowa.

2. Play beyond their years

Illinois is one of the youngest teams in the country and while the roster seems stocked with good, young talent, inconsistent efforts which accompanies youth have been a constant companion of the Illini this season.

Coach Lovie Smith has started 11 true freshmen this season, more than any team in the nation, and only the 20 true freshmen who have seen the field for LSU top the 19 first-year players who have seen action for Illinois.

Overall, the Illini have had 19 first-time starters through four games. That has made an impact on the team's bottom line.

3. Roll the dice

Illinois is going to have to gamble a bit defensively if it hopes to take Iowa out of its game.

The Illini have shown the ability to disrupt things a bit this season, ranking fifth in the Big Ten in sacks. Bobby Roundtree ranks among conference leaders with three sacks and joins Tre Watson is leading the Illini in tackles for a loss. DelShawn Phillips, Tymir Oliver, Isaiah Gray and James Crawford each have two TFLs as well.

4. Fly Air George

Illinois' move to Jeff George Jr. at quarterback is designed to help jumpstart a stagnant offense.

The strong-armed sophomore is more of a traditional pocket passer and much like his father, former Illini QB Jeff George, he can sling it.

In Mike Dudek and Malik Turner, he has capable receivers to work with and getting the ball to them is among Illinois' priorities. The pair have combined for 30 of the 54 passes the Illini have completed this year.

Freshman Mike Epstein leads Illinois' ground attack and the ability to gain ground through the air should help open things up for a rushing attack which has averaged a dismal 106 yards per game and ranks last in the Big Ten.

Iowa's secondary has been solid. Josh Jackson shares the Big Ten lead in passes defended and interceptions and was added Friday to the watch list for the Bednarik Award. Iowa is also expected to regain the services of safety Brandon Snyder, returning from an ACL injury.

Iowa (3-2, 0-2)

1. Establish the run

The Hawkeyes have averaged 50.5 yards per game on the ground in league play through two games and Iowa can expect to see defenses continue to stack up to stop the run until it can prove it can do something to counter it.

Akrum Wadley enters Saturday's game needing 98 yards to pass Shonn Greene for 10th on Iowa's career rushing list.

Working against an Illini defense has been surrendering a Big Ten-worst 179.9 yards per game on the ground, Wadley and the Hawkeyes should be able to find room to work Saturday.

Expect back-ups Ivory Kelly-Martin and Toren Young to see additional carries as well.

2. Funnel the frustration

There was plenty of frustration to go around following the Hawkeyes' 17-10 loss at Michigan State.

Offensive players were frustrated by a lack of execution and the inability to sustain drives. Defensive players were frustrated by the quick start the Spartans got off to. Special teams players were frustrated by struggles in the punting and return game.

Combined, it was enough to make a guy want to put a fist through a wall.

The Hawkeyes' ability to channel that frustration into positive constructive energy this week will determine if Iowa is able to head into the bye week with a little momentum.

A young Illinois team is far from being another Penn State or Michigan State. The Hawkeyes may have an opportunity to take out their frustrations on the Illini.

3. Solve connectivity issues

Growth in Iowa's passing attack will only help create more success on the ground.

Quarterback Nate Stanley is off to a solid start, connecting on 58.8 percent of his passes, but hit just 16-of-31 passes last week at Michigan State.

Connecting on the deep ball has continued to elude the Iowa sophomore and that part of the game, a key to opening things up on the ground and forcing defenses to play the Hawkeyes more straight up, will be important moving forward.

Opponents are completing passes at a 62.4-percent clip against the Fighting Illini, opening that opportunity for success to Iowa this week.

4. Be special on special teams

Illinois has the ability to disrupt things on special teams. The Fighting Illini have blocked three kicks -- two field goals and a PAT try -- through four games this season.

Iowa, which had a 36-yard field goal try snuffed out by Penn State, needs to find consistency on the special teams.

Colten Rastetter has averaged 39.7 yards on 25 punts this season, but has struggled with consistency to the point where a lineup change isn't totally out of the question with freshman Ryan Gersonde waiting in the wings.

Josh Jackson fielded three punts inside the 10-yard line last week at Michigan State, including one just outside of the goal line. Improved decision making can help create better field position for iowa's offense.

It's all part of that early-season roller coaster ride that Iowa has been on with new players in new roles. Some of it is to be expected but as the season nears the midpoint growth is necessary.

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