Post-DeJean era begins for Hawkeyes vs. Illinois

IOWA CITY — No. 16 Iowa will play its first game without standout cornerback and punt returner Cooper DeJean on Sunday as the Hawkeyes face Bret Bielema’s Illinois Fighting Illini.

Kickoff is set for 2:30 p.m. inside Kinnick Stadium. With a win, head coach Kirk Ferentz’s squad would clinch the outright Big Ten West title and a trip to Indianapolis for the conference championship game

The Hawkeyes have won back-to-back games over Northwestern and Minnesota, allowing just seven total points in the process. Their resolve will be tested now without DeJean, who suffered a lower leg injury earlier this week in practice.

DeJean, a member of The Associated Press midseason All-America team and a finalist for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy as the top defensive player in the nation, is expected to miss the rest of the season.

“This is truly heartbreaking for Cooper,” Ferentz told the Associated Press. “He has played extremely well and is a real playmaker on our team. We will all support Cooper during his recovery, which will continue into the new year.”

DeJean was on the field for nearly 400 snaps in defensive coverage without giving up a touchdown. He leads the Hawkeyes with five pass breakups, and is second with two interceptions.

DeJean also leads the Big Ten with an 11.5-yard punt return average. He scored the winning touchdown against Michigan State with a 70-yard return late in the game last month.

The Hawks also lost Cade McNamara, Luke Lachey and Erick All to season-ending leg injuries, and standout defensive tackle Noah Shannon to a year-long gambling suspension.

Iowa is 5-1 since a 31-0 loss at Penn State, and the Hawks haven’t given up more than 16 points in a single gme during that entire stretch.

The Illini have prevailed in their last two contests, edgin Minnesota on the road, 27-26, and Indiana at home, 48-45 in overtime. The team’s last four games have been decided by four points or less.

Quarterback Luke Altmyer is expected to return and start this week, despite back-up John Paddock’s effectiveness lately. Paddock has thrown for nearly 600 yards and five touchdowns since Altmyer suffered an injury against the Golden Gophers two weeks ago.