The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

Illinois football prepares for defensive battle in final road contest

Saturday presents perhaps the greatest challenge that the Illini (5-5, 3-4) have faced all year. The No. 16 Iowa Hawkeyes (8-2, 5-2) are hosting in Iowa City this weekend, as they sit joyfully looking down on the rest of the Big Ten West. 

With just two weeks remaining, the Illini have not been mathematically eliminated from any of their preseason goals, but it won’t be easy. The first is to qualify for a bowl game, which the Illini only need to win one of their final two matchups to complete. Second on the checklist was a division championship, which is a little more complicated. 

To earn a spot in the conference championship the Illini need to win out, Iowa needs to lose out, and Wisconsin and Nebraska must lose at least one game each. A whole lot of stuff that the Illini have no control over, but they can try starting against the Hawkeyes. 

Fans of both teams remember the most entertaining 9-6 game in football history last year in Champaign, where the Illini reigned victorious for the first time in 14 years. While the game might see both teams reach double digits this year — emphasis on “might” — both defenses are the strongpoints of their teams.

The Hawkeyes are allowing 12.3 points per game, but the number is swayed from one lopsided 31-0 loss against the Penn State Nittany Lions. Long known for having one of the top units in the nation, Iowa is stout against the run and pass, however one of their main contributors will now miss the game.

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Junior cornerback Cooper DeJean got a lower leg injury in practice this week that will force him to miss the rest of the season. DeJean is a projected first round pick in the 2024 NFL draft and has been a key player in the Hawkeye defense for the past two years. DeJean also made an impact as a punt returner, making it that much bigger of a loss. 

The Hawkeyes have welcomed DeJeans ability for a good return at any time, as their offense struggles to move the ball. A team that only averages 18.8 points per game has benefited from the return man amassing 406 yards and a touchdown in his career, not including a touchdown return this year that got called back.

Without someone to set up good field position, it will be interesting to see how the offense is impacted. After securing multiple four star offensive transfers in the portal this offseason, including former Michigan quarterback Cade McNamara, the offense didn’t take the leap they wanted to. Injuries to McNamara and others have resulted in an inconsistent offense that fails to put many points on the board. 

While the other notes are important for Saturday’s game, the Illini quarterback room has been the talk in Champaign all week long. With sophomore quarterback Luke Altmyer injured, fifth-year quarterback John Paddock stepped in and has looked incredible. A game-winning drive against Minnesota and breaking the Memorial Stadium single game passing yard record has placed Paddock in the conversation for keeping the starting job when Altmyer returns. 

But much to the dismay of Illini fans who were impressed by Paddock’s success, head coach Bret Bielema appeared to confirm that it will Altmyer under center for the Illini in a Wednesday appearance on SiriusXM Big Ten radio.

He was our starting quarterback before he left and thats where I see it now, Bielema said.

Despite this, Bielema stated on Thursday that they weren’t releasing the starter until game time. 

“I’ve never been a coach that’s put a player in a position that they’ve lost by injury,” Bielema said last week. Now, wanting to keep his cards close to his chest, he refused to name a starter but said, “I think our guys have 100% no doubt in their mind who is going to start.”

Regardless of who starts, victory will be a tall task. It would give the Illini consecutive wins over Iowa for the first time since 1999-2000 and their first win in Iowa City since 1999. 

 

@benfader7

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About the Contributor
Ben Fader, Assistant Sports Editor
Hello, I’m Ben! I’m a junior at Illinois and assistant sports editor at The Daily Illini. I’m majoring in journalism and minoring in communications and recreation, sport and tourism. This is my third year with The Daily Illini, and I can’t wait to produce some amazing work. Feel free to contact me at my email below with questions or concerns, or if you just want to talk sports!
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