IOWA CITY – Ihmir Smith-Marsette expects to be poked, prodded and swiped at whenever the football comes his way Saturday.
Some of that’s just football, defenders trying to do their job against a talented wide receiver.
This week, the Iowa junior expects even more of that as Illinois’ takeaway ways come into play in the Hawkeyes’ 11 a.m. home finale at Kinnick Stadium.
No team in college football this season has been more productive in turning game plans upside down because of the turnovers it has created than the Fighting Illini.
“They’re really good at it,’’ Smith-Marsette said. “They’ve shown it all season. Ball security, that’s priority one this week.’’
With Fighting Illini coach Lovie Smith now overseeing his team’s defense, Illinois has exceled in making game-changing plays.
Illinois leads the country with six defensive touchdowns, 26 turnovers gained, 17 forced fumbles, 16 fumble recoveries and a 1.40 turnover margin.
“They’ve been good at turning people over,’’ Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley said.
The Fighting Illini also rank seventh nationally with an average of 8.3 tackles for a loss per game.
That has helped lead Illinois to its first four-game winning streak since 2011 and the 6-4 record it brings into Saturday’s game.
Smith said his fourth-year program has experienced success because of the way his players have embraced its primary objectives.
“We run the football on the offensive side with an emphasis on ball security and we work to take the ball away on defense,’’ Smith said.
Illinois has forced at least two turnovers in each of its games against Big Ten competition this season, building a 4-3 record which matches Iowa’s conference start.
In those seven Big Ten games, the Fighting Illini have forced 20 turnovers, four more turnovers than any other team in the league has forced.
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“On defense, they play extremely hard, are very aggressive and will do what they can to get their hands on the football,’’ Stanley said. “Until the play is over, that’s something we have to be ready for.’’
He expects to hear the words “ball security’’ a lot this week.
“That’s something we talk about all the time, but taking care of the ball is something we absolutely have to do this week,’’ Stanley said. “We have to be smart and play the kind of football that we know we are capable of playing.’’
The Hawkeyes have turned the ball over just nine times through their 7-3 start to the season, matching Ohio State for the fewest turnovers in the league.
Iowa will be tested by a Fighting Illini team which has feasted on the mistakes of others, not only recovering 16 fumbles but also intercepting 10 passes.
Butkus Award semifinalist Jake Hansen leads the nation in forcing seven fumbles this season and has recovered three fumbles, one fewer than teammate Stanley Green who shares the NCAA lead with four fumble recoveries and has forced nine fumbles during his career at safety.
Hansen sat out the Illini’s most recent game, which saw the Fighting Illini turn Michigan State over four times as it rallied from a 25-point deficit to win 37-34, and remains questionable for Saturday’s game at Iowa.
He has had help in disrupting things at linebacker, where Illinois’ Dele Harding ranks 10th in the nation with three forced fumbles and has recorded a team-leading three of the interceptions the Fighting Illini have recorded.
Defensive end Oluwole Betiku and cornerback Jartavius Martin share third in the Big Ten in recovering a pair of fumbles this season. Betiku also leads the Illini with eight sacks and 11.5 tackles for a loss.
Coach Kirk Ferentz said Iowa’s goal against Illinois will be the same as it has been the previous 10 times it has taken the field this season.
“To play clean football on Saturday, that’s the bottom line. That’s really a huge factor in any game we play typically. It was a big factor (last week in the win over Minnesota),’’ Ferentz said.
“There was only one turnover differential, but it made a big difference. We have to try to be as clean as we can this week knowing this is a very opportunistic, aggressive type of defense.’’
Smith-Marsette is preparing for the Fighting Illini with that mindset.
“They’re going to come at the ball any way they can,’’ he said. “Our job – it’s to hold onto the ball. It’s that simple. Don’t give them any additional opportunities. We need to be on top of that part of our game this week in particular because we can see what happens, what they like to do, if we don’t do our job.’’