By JAMES ALLAN
IOWA CITY, Iowa — Saturday’s game at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois, is a chance for the University of Iowa defense to redeem itself.
During last week’s loss to Northwestern, the Hawkeyes played like a top 10 defense in the first half when they held the Wildcats to 75 yards, five first downs, and an 0-for-6 effort on third down.
In the second half, the tide turned. Northwestern’s rushing attack churned out 150 yards on 29 carries — averaging 5.2 yards per attempt. The Wildcats put up 232 offensive yards and scored two touchdowns to rally for a 14-10 Big Ten West Division-clinching victory in Kinnick Stadium.
On the heels of surrendering the second-most rushing yards of the season, the Hawkeyes turn their attention to an Illinois team that boasts one of the nation’s top rushing attacks. The Illini rank eighth nationally, averaging 262.8 yards, and their 6.29 yards per attempt ranks fifth.
“Illinois is one of the most explosive offenses in the country,” said senior defensive end Parker Hesse. “It’s going to be a good test for us. It’s something that our defense is looking forward to, a chance to redeem ourselves.”
Illinois ran for 430 yards two weeks ago in a 55-31 victory over Minnesota and followed with 383 yards on the ground last week at Nebraska. The Illini have posted 10 100-yard rushing performances this season and lead the nation in 80+, 70+, 40+, and 30+ runs, and are third in 60+ and 50+.
The Fighting Illini, who are averaging 41 points, 549.3 yards, and 348.3 rushing yards over their last three games, churn out big plays. Iowa’s focus is avoiding such plays.
During the Hawkeyes’ three-game losing streak, the team has surrendered eight plays of 20 or more yards with six of those plays going for touchdowns.
“It comes down to focusing each play,” said Hesse. “Illinois, in particular, but with every offense in the Big Ten, any play can be a scoring play. It takes 11 guys being on it every play and every snap. That’s what we have to do.”
The Hawkeyes are staying together in the midst of the program’s longest losing streak in four seasons. The team is motivated to right the ship and finish the regular season strong.
“It would be easy for everybody to get spread apart, instead of coming together,” said senior offensive lineman Ross Reynolds. “We have to stay together and keep working.
“It doesn’t make sense to give up. This is what you work for and that is motivation enough. You want to be in the locker room celebrating, you don’t want to be dealing with a loss.”
Hesse says it takes mental strength to persevere through the losing streak.
“To lose three games in a row is tough, but it takes mental toughness to put it behind you and you realize that nothing you can do now can change that fact,” he said. “What will be worse is adding on to it. You have to stand up and say I’m going to make a change and say I am going to get the next one.”
Saturday’s game will kickoff at 2:30 p.m. (CT) and it will be televised on BTN with Lisa Byington and J Leman on the call.