(Photo credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports)
For No. 16 Iowa, a win Saturday means a spot in the Big Ten championship game. For Illinois, a win Saturday at Iowa City would seal bowl eligibility.
The Illini's late-season charge has been fueled by two quarterbacks, with usual starter Luke Altmyer set to return this week after senior backup John Paddock did stellar work the past two games.
Last week, Paddock threw for a Memorial Stadium-record 507 yards in his first Illinois start and earned Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week honors after leading the Illini (5-5, 3-4) to a 48-45 overtime win over visiting Indiana.
The previous week, Altmyer exited late due to a concussion, and Paddock entered and guided the Illini to the game-winning touchdown drive in a 27-26 victory at Minnesota.
Altmyer was cleared to play on Tuesday, and he will be back under center at Iowa.
"He was our starting quarterback before he left (the Minnesota game), and that's where I see it now," Illinois coach Bret Bielema said of Altmyer on a SiriusXM radio show on Wednesday. "The best part that we have is if there's any part of that that gets gray, we have a guy who has proven he can play and do some good things. Super excited about both of those guys."
Perhaps the Paddock/Altmyer debate doesn't address the biggest question of all: Will Illinois be able to score a touchdown against Iowa (8-2, 5-2) regardless of who's running the offense?
Over the last four weeks, the Hawkeyes have surrendered just one touchdown. For the year, Iowa has given up 11 touchdowns in 10 games while building the nation's third-best scoring defense (12.3 points per game) and fourth-best pass-efficiency defense (100.14 rating).
"We're clearly a better defense than we were 6-8 weeks ago," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "But that's what you hope for with all your guys. You hope they're all improving. The guys have played well. They work hard in practice. They prepare. They study. And then the other component is, you gain some confidence when you do have success."
"They're just so, so consistent," said Illinois offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. "They make you earn every, every inch that you get. They make you earn it. And they very rarely make mistakes. That's probably the unique nature of it is they're just so rigid and systematic and they're physical and tough. A lot of good qualities I'm describing. All these adjectives I'm saying would be the earmark of a great defense -- and that's what this is."
Junior defensive back Cooper DeJean serves as the poster boy for Iowa's defense, but he sustained a serious leg injury in practice Wednesday and is likely done for the season. He was also named one of the five Nagurski Trophy finalists on Wednesday. One of the others was Illinois defensive tackle Jer'Zhan Newton.
DeJean also was named a Bednarik Award semifinalist this week -- keeping him in the running for National Defensive Player of the Year -- to go with his semifinalist status for the Jim Thorpe Award and the Lott IMPACT Trophy.
On the flip side, Iowa's offense hasn't exactly been prolific. Last week's 22-point outburst against Rutgers represented the Hawkeyes' second-biggest Big Ten output this season. To put it a different way: Paddock threw for more yards last week (507) than Iowa quarterback Deacon Hill has thrown for in the last four weeks (441).
Ferentz, though, cares about only one number: The one in the win column. The Hawkeyes need just one win in the next two weeks to clinch their second West Division crown in the last three years.
"One thing you try to explain to the players -- and I think they've figured this out," Ferentz said. "There's really no downside to winning and there's a lot of downside to losing."
--Field Level Media