IOWA CITY, Iowa — The suddenly resurgent Iowa Hawkeyes travel to Illinois on Saturday for their final road test of this college football season.
Iowa (6-4, 4-3 in the Big Ten) claimed bowl eligibility last week in a 14-13 upset of Michigan. Illinois (3-7, 2-5) won’t be going bowling in coach Lovie Smith’s first season in Champaign.
While this matchup won’t command the nation’s eyes and ears like last week’s game in Iowa City, it’s still vital for Iowa’s bowl positioning and sustaining momentum among fans. For Illinois, beating the Hawkeyes would give it victories over both Big Ten title game combatants last year.
Here are five keys to watch for this week’s game at Memorial Stadium (noon ET/11 a.m. CT, BTN).
1. Slow down the pass rush
Illinois’ defensive end tandem of Dawuane Smoot and Carroll Phillips have combined for 29.5 tackles for loss, the second-most of any duo nationally. Phillips leads the Big Ten with 17 and is also No. 1 in sacks with eight. If Illinois had a winning record, this combination might draw comparisons with the Simeon Rice-Kevin Hardy era. Rice (1995) and Mike Poloskey (1991) hold Illinois’ single-season record of 23 tackles for loss. Phillips has a chance to reach that mark.
Considering Iowa’s struggles in pass protection, slowing down Smoot and Phillips is a priority. The Hawkeyes have allowed 27 sacks in 10 games and are on track to give up the most since 2007, when they allowed 46.
2. Run the football
Perhaps no statistic represents Iowa football’s inconsistency this year quite like its rushing number. In the Hawkeyes’ six wins, Iowa averages 218.5 yards on the ground. In every victory, Iowa ran for at least 164 yards, including last week’s 14-13 upset of Michigan. In the Hawkeyes’ four losses, Iowa averages 56.5 yards. The highest rushing output was 83 yards against Wisconsin.
Illinois has given up at least 170 rushing yards in its last 10 games. In a 48-3 defeat to Wisconsin, the Fighting Illini allowed 363 yards on the ground. Overall, Illinois ranks 96th in run defense. If you take away the Week 1 domination against Murray State (allowed minus-10 rushing yards), the Illini would rank 116th at 233.3 yards per game.
3. Control the clock
Even without an effective passing game, Iowa was able to control the line of scrimmage against Michigan and win the time of possession battle 32:45 to 27:15. At 29:10, the Hawkeyes still are a ways off from last year’s 31:37 pace. But it’s clearly better than their opponent’s number this week.
Illinois ranks 123rd nationally and last in the Big Ten at 25:31 in time of possession. Often the Illini score with big plays, which brings down that number. Illinois has five runs of 50-plus yards to rank 10th nationally. But Illinois is last in the Big Ten in third-down conversions at 28.1 percent. That ranks 125th of 128 teams in Division I.
4. Guard against a letdown
Before the season, this trip looked like the ultimate trap game for Iowa. The Hawkeyes were favored to repeat as Big Ten West Division champions and this road game was positioned after night games against blue bloods Penn State and Michigan, and right before the Black Friday clash with Nebraska.
Iowa’s thrilling upset against the Wolverines could lead to a hangover effect. Illinois’ Memorial Stadium won’t have the raucous environment at Kinnick Stadium or Penn State’s Beaver Stadium. Plus, an 11 a.m. kickoff time hasn’t led to stellar performances for Iowa this year (3-3 record). Nothing would kill Iowa’s momentum more than to lose a road game at 3-7 Illinois.
5. Be ready for a rumble
Iowa faced a similar situation with Illinois last year. The Hawkeyes beat Wisconsin 10-6 in Madison, which generated a ton of buzz locally. The next week Illinois came to Kinnick Stadium for the first time in eight years. In one of the season’s hardest-hitting games, Iowa survived 29-20 but lost defensive end Drew Ott for the season with a torn ACL, and right tackle Ike Boettger was injured and didn’t play again until the Rose Bowl.
This rivalry is full of starchy incidents, especially in basketball (see Bruce Pearl-Deon Thomas). One major football spark was in 1952, when Iowa fans charged the field in Iowa City after a 33-13 loss. One fan smacked Illinois tight end Rocky Ryan’s shoulder pads, which led to Ryan smashing the fan’s jaw. The schools agreed to break off their series and didn’t play against until 1967.
These teams recruit against one another every year. Iowa has 16 Illinois natives on its roster, including eight on its two-deep. Expect some lively dialogue among the players on Saturday.