Iowa football 2023 early opponent preview: Illinois

Jul. 24, 2023 6:00 am
IOWA CITY — Bret Bielema, with his well-documented Tigerhawk tattoo, might finally make it to Kinnick Stadium this year.
The third-year Illinois football coach was supposed to visit his alma mater in 2021, but tested positive for COVID-19. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, Bielema will finally coach on the opposing sidelines at Kinnick for the first time since 2010.
The group Bielema brings to Kinnick will have a different look than the Illinois team that pulled off a 9-6 win over the Hawkeyes last year.
Illinois’ offense faces the challenging task of replacing running back Chase Brown’s production. Brown racked up 1,643 rushing yards last year while averaging 5.0 yards per carry.
Reggie Love will likely be the Illini’s No. 1 running back after taking on that role in the ReliaQuest Bowl. He had 12 carries for 53 yards in the bowl game. Over the course of the season, Love averaged 4.6 yards per carry as the No. 2 back behind Brown.
Illinois brought in Luke Altmyer at quarterback from the transfer portal to replace the graduating Tommy DeVito. In three years at Ole Miss, Altmyer was 28-for-54 with three touchdowns and three interceptions. He had one career start.
The defensive line lost nose tackle Calvin Avery, but it returns defensive ends Jer’Zhan Newton and Keith Randolph Jr. The Newton-Randolph duo combined to record 27 tackles for loss and 10 sacks last year.
The Illinois secondary that grabbed 24 interceptions lost most of its production to the NFL. The returning cast was responsible for only seven of those 24 picks.
Devon Witherspoon, Jartavius Martin and Sydney Brown were selected in the first, second and third rounds, respectively, of this year’s NFL Draft. Kendall Smith was an undrafted free agent.
Iowa vs. Illinois: 3 things to watch
What can Luke Altmyer bring to Bret Bielema’s offense? Altmyer’s production certainly did not jump off the page at Ole Miss. However, if the former four-star recruit can succeed in new surroundings, Illinois could be a dangerous team.
How well does Iowa’s offensive line contain Illinois’ Jer’Zhan Newton and Keith Randolph Jr.? Iowa needs to do a better job against Illinois’ defensive front after allowing 11 tackles for loss in last year’s 9-6 loss in Champaign, Ill.
Illinois’ offensive line vs. Iowa’s defensive line. This could be one of the more intriguing matchups as Isaiah Adams and Julian Pearl lead an experienced Illinois offensive line. Meanwhile, Iowa’s defensive line is expected to again be one of the team’s strengths.
2023 prognosis
Iowa will likely be the favorite, but Bielema’s Illini are one of the teams that has the potential to be a legitimate obstacle on Iowa’s path to Indianapolis. In the penultimate week of the season, this game could have significant Big Ten West title implications.

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