Illinois football makes final road trip of season, heads to No. 17 Iowa without Bret Bielema

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Ryan Ash

Offensive linebacker Owen Carney sprints toward Wisconsin Quarterback Graham Mertz for a tackle on Oct. 9. The team is traveling to Iowa this weekend for their last game of the season without Bielema, who tested positive for COVID-19 early this week.

By Wes Hollenberg, Staff Writer

Illinois football will travel to Iowa City this Saturday to face No. 17 Iowa in its penultimate game of the regular season at 1 p.m.

Iowa is 8-2 on the season and will be Illinois’ third consecutive ranked road opponent. The Illini have found ways to upset those previous two ranked opponents in Minnesota and Penn State, but this weekend will be a little bit different. The Illini will be without head coach Bret Bielema, who tested positive for COVID-19 early this week.

In his place, Bielema promoted assistant head coach/wide receivers coach George McDonald to head coach for the matchup.

“One of the things I’ve done in football as well as with my coaches — I don’t really want to have one position change and have to move two or three people to accomplish the same task — so I went with George because he’s got tremendous rapport with our players offensively, defensively, (and on) special teams,” Bielema said. “He’s our assistant head coach, but I’ve had him on our Illini council, so he touches a lot of faces in our program.”

Bielema noted that he places value on keeping his coordinators — Ryan Walters and Tony Petersen — in their jobs to try to keep things as close to normal as possible. He also noted this plan of succession has been in place since before the season started and shared the possibility that others may be out as well.

On top of Illinois’ internal concerns, Iowa presents a daunting matchup on its own. When the Illini faced the Hawkeyes last year, they lost at home 35-21, so it will require a considerable turnaround to pull out a victory without Bielema on the sideline.

The Hawkeyes have the third best scoring defense in the Big Ten, allowing just 16.3 points per game. Their primary strength defensively is their run defense, which ranks fourth in the Big Ten while allowing 107.6 rushing yards per game.

Illinois has played two elite run defenses so far this season in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Against the Badgers, the Illini had their worst offensive game of the season, getting shut out without almost any productive work in either the passing or running game.

Minnesota, however, was a different story. The Illini registered 199 rushing yards on a relatively efficient 48 attempts, showing that they do have the ability to be productive against strong units.

The Hawkeyes do have a roughly average secondary, allowing 207.4 passing yards per game. In recent weeks, starting quarterback Brandon Peters has seen his passing volume decrease, but it has become much more efficient. There’s a chance that volume changes this week.

Offensively, the Hawkeyes rank a bit lower, as just the tenth scoring offensive in the Big Ten at 24.7 points per game. If the Illini can keep the scoring low like they did against the Golden Gophers last game, they may have a chance.

“Their offense is very good; they have a lot of key playmakers,” said linebacker Owen Carney Jr. “A really good back. I don’t know if their quarterback (Spencer Petras) is down or not, but I’m pretty sure they can plug the new guy (Alex Padilla) in and keep him going as well. Keep their offense going. They’re firing pretty good. A pretty good ball team. 8-2 on the year. We’re really focusing on stopping that run; we know that’s where they get their bread and butter from.”

Petras has been battling injury in recent weeks, and if he can’t go, Padilla will likely draw the start. Regardless of who’s starting at quarterback for Iowa, the Illini will have their hands full without their head coach. If Illinois wants a chance at becoming bowl eligible, it will need to win this game to have a chance to get to .500 in its final matchup of the season against Northwestern.

“It’s the most important game,” said offensive lineman Vederian Lowe. “This is the most important game this week for me personally and for all the other guys that I came into this University with. We haven’t won against those guys since we’ve been here, and we kind of want to start turning the tide. Iowa’s a great football program. They have a lot of history. Their guys play very hard. They play very physical, and they’re going to come out and give us a great fight. They’re going to defend their home. We’re just preparing this week to come out there and put on a great show and perform without Coach (Bielema) being there.”

@WesHollenberg

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