IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Illinois takes its stirring run in the Big Ten this season to another house of horrors on Saturday.
No 19 Iowa has dominated the Fighting Illini over the past decade and has not lost to Illinois at home since 1999. Iowa also handed Illinois a 63-0 loss in Champaign a year ago, a defeat the Illini seem intent on answering for.
“It's taken an awful lot to get us fired up, and we are anxious to play this game. We were embarrassed on our home turf last year,” Illinois coach Lovie Smith said. “It will be a good challenge for us to go on the road. But we accept that challenge.”
This has been a feel-good year for Illinois (6-4, 4-3 Big Ten), which has won four consecutive conference games for the first time in 18 years. It started with a stunning win over then-No. 6 Wisconsin and the most recent surprise, a 37-34 win on the road against Michigan State in a game Illinois trailed by 25 points. Suddenly the hot seat for Smith has cooled and the two-year contract extension (through 2023) that he got a year ago doesn’t look quite so odd.
Still, Illinois has beaten Iowa just once since 2000 and the Hawkeyes (7-3, 4-3) just knocked off previously unbeaten Minnesota while winning three of their last four games.
The Illini scored 75 points in their last two games but will face a stern test Saturday. Iowa is fifth nationally in scoring defense at 12.4 points per game, and no one has scored more than 24 points on the Hawkeyes all season. Illinois does run the ball — nearly 39 times a game — but only gains 3.87 yards per attempt (93rd nationally).
Still, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz believes that what Illinois has done over its last four games is no fluke.
“I'm not at all surprised by Illinois. I didn't know when it was going to happen, but my sense was it was going to happen, and it is happening now,” Ferentz said.
The Illini have turned things around behind the nation’s most opportunistic defense, a nod to Smith’s strength dating to his days with the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Illinois leads the nation in defensive touchdowns (six), turnovers forced (26), fumble recoveries (16) and turnover margin (plus-1.4). The Illini are also 3-1 on the road this season.
“Good football teams have to go on the road and win, and I feel we are equipped to do that. We run the football on the offensive side, we put an emphasis on ball security and taking the ball away on defense,” Smith said.
Iowa senior quarterback Nate Stanley will make his final start at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday. Stanley is 24-12 as a starter for the Hawkeyes and is second in school history with 66 touchdown passes and third with 7,682 yards passing.
“Nate's biggest challenge to this day, I'll say it's probably until he's done playing, he's such a perfectionist. He puts a lot of pressure on himself. That's one of the reasons he is so good,” Ferentz said.
Iowa’s three losses came by just 14 points to Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin — all ranked teams that are a combined 25-5. ... Illinois still has a shot at the West Division title, but it’s a long one. The Illini need to win out and have Minnesota and Wisconsin lose on Saturday. If the Badgers then beat the Gophers on Nov. 30, Illinois would be crowned division champion. ... Illinois running back Reggie Corbin’s 6.6 yards per career carry ranks fourth among active FBS players with at least 2,000 yards.
HE SAID IT
“There's something inherently sick about football in general. I can't explain it. But people seem to be drawn to it. Certainly the players and coaches are.” — Ferentz on the magnetic draw of football for some.