Of all the lowlights — no points on offense, just 218 total yards and no big plays in the kicking game — the pass defense stood out in a bad way. The Illini allowed Badgers redshirt freshman Graham Mertz to complete 20 of 21 passes for 248 yards and five touchdowns in his first college start.
For a team boasting 25 seniors and feeling as if it could finally stack up with most conference teams on a weekly basis, the game was quite a comedown.
“When you make an effort like that,” Illinois coach Lovie Smith said, “you can’t wait to play as soon as possible. We’re a lot better than that. We are not as far along as I hoped we would be, but we still have time to get better.”
Getting better for the Illini starts with finding a coverage scheme that will keep Boilermakers wide receiver David Bell from carving them up. Bell caught 13 passes for 121 yards and three scores against Iowa, including the 6-yard game-winner from Aidan O’Donnell with 2:15 remaining.
It was a continuation of 2019 for Bell, who grabbed 86 passes for 1,035 yards en route to Big 10 Freshman of the Year honors. He has at least 100 yards in each of his last four games dating back to last year.
Illinois must also find a way to sustain drives and finish them with points. There were some decent chunk plays, but there were far too many zero or negative-yardage plays along the way. It was a surprisingly poor performance by a group of offensive linemen with 130 career starts among them.
This will be the 96th all-time meeting of the schools. The Illini’s 24-6 win last year gave them a 45-44-6 edge in the series.
–Field Level Media