Week 13 scouting report: Illinois

The Illinois defense is among the best in the country in forcing turnovers and defensive scoring — two things Iowa will try and limit on Saturday.

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Week 13 scouting report: Illinois

Illinois' RaVon Bonner runs the ball during the Iowa/Illinois football game at Memorial Stadium in Champaign on Saturday, November 17, 2018. The Hawkeyes defeated the Fighting Illini, 63-0, to snap a 3-game losing streak.

Illinois' RaVon Bonner runs the ball during the Iowa/Illinois football game at Memorial Stadium in Champaign on Saturday, November 17, 2018. The Hawkeyes defeated the Fighting Illini, 63-0, to snap a 3-game losing streak.

Lily Smith

Illinois' RaVon Bonner runs the ball during the Iowa/Illinois football game at Memorial Stadium in Champaign on Saturday, November 17, 2018. The Hawkeyes defeated the Fighting Illini, 63-0, to snap a 3-game losing streak.

Lily Smith

Lily Smith

Illinois' RaVon Bonner runs the ball during the Iowa/Illinois football game at Memorial Stadium in Champaign on Saturday, November 17, 2018. The Hawkeyes defeated the Fighting Illini, 63-0, to snap a 3-game losing streak.

Pete Mills, Sports Reporter

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Many Iowa fans wrote its game against Illinois off before the season started, but as the Illini find themselves on a four-game winning streak, several things are going right for them as the season winds down.

Illinois’ defensive scoring and spread offense, in particular, have allowed it to make explosive plays even when trailing to favored opponents.

On the defensive side, Illinois’ linebackers have caused absolute havoc in 2019. A combination of solid schemes and talented tacklers have given the Illini an FBS-leading 16 fumbles recovered this season.

Linebackers Jake Hansen and Dele Harding have spearheaded the campaign, combining for 10 forced fumbles and 193 tackles. Big-time defensive plays have been the difference for Illinois thus far.

Hansen took advantage of Wisconsin quarterback Jack Coan in the matchup between the teams on Oct. 19. In the second quarter of the game, Hansen and lineman Owen Carney, Jr. pass rush in a crossing pattern. Hansen catches the inside gap between Wisconsin’s tackle and guard, and his elusive speed allows him to force the fumble on Coan.

The common key between these important defensive plays has been their timeliness. Illinois was down by 10 points to Wisconsin before Hansen got the ball back for his team. A 49-yard passing touchdown from Brandon Peters came just a few plays later, and eventually, an upset victory.

The true X-factor in Illinois’ upsets this season has been its defensive scoring, as the Illini lead the country in defensive touchdowns.

Along with Hansen, Harding has been a linebacker that has caused issues in this area. He has scored two touchdowns on the year and has been excellent in coverage for the Illini defense, proving the versatility of the Illinois linebacker corps.

In Illinois’ win over Rutgers, Harding had his way with Scarlet Knight quarterback Austin Albericci. Harding indicates that he’s moving into a pass-rush as he creeps up towards the line of scrimmage but drops back into coverage instead. Albericci doesn’t see him underneath the wide receiver, and Harding snags the interception and scores the first of his two touchdowns on the season.

On the other side of the ball, perhaps the most impressive offensive efforts for Illinois have come toward the end of tight games. Peters has proven to possess the ability to keep plays alive with his legs and make good decisions with the ball.

Illinois tends to run play-action passes that roll Peters out to the right side. Peters can often extend plays this way, and a lot of pressure is taken off the offensive line. In Illinois’ last-second win over Michigan State, Peters rolls out to the right and receives a lengthy six seconds to find tight end David Barker in the end zone, the Michigan State defensive end beat Illinois’ left tackle..

Peters has had a strong season, throwing 16 touchdowns and only five interceptions with 1,486 yards. He’s added an additional three touchdowns on the ground.

It doesn’t hurt that receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe can catch nearly everything thrown his way. He has posted 598 yards and nine receiving touchdowns this season, averaging 20.6 yards per reception.

With the game on the line in the fourth quarter against Michigan State, the Spartan defensive line hurried Peters. He threw up a jump-ball, and Imatorbhebhe took on two defensive backs to bring down the catch.

Iowa has been excellent in limiting big plays this season, and its offense has been fairly fundamentally sound in not committing too many turnovers. If it can do these things on Saturday, it has an excellent chance of beating Illinois for the sixth-straight time.

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