IOWA CITY, Iowa — In a series that has had multiple interruptions, it’s almost newsworthy that Iowa and Illinois will play for the third consecutive season.
The border foes rotated off one another’s schedule in 2009 and 2010 under the Big Ten’s old 11-team set-up. Back then, each squad protected two opponents annually (Iowa had Wisconsin and Minnesota; Illinois had Northwestern and Indiana) and played the others six times over an 8-year period. Then with Nebraska’s entry in 2011, Iowa and Illinois were divided in separate divisions and weren’t scheduled to meet in 2011 or 2012. The original schedule had the teams off one another schedules in 2013 and 2014, as well.
When Maryland and Rutgers joined the league in 2014, Iowa and Illinois returned to one another’s schedules as members of the Big Ten West Division. They didn’t play for five consecutive seasons until Nov. 15, 2014, and the Hawkeyes faced three other teams from Illinois during that span — Northwestern six times, Northern Illinois twice and Eastern Illinois once.
The Hawkeyes (6-4, 4-3 Big Ten) and Fighting Illini (3-7, 2-5) enter their noon ET Saturday matchup on BTN heading in different directions. To learn more about the Fighting Illini, here’s a question-and-answer session with Champaign News-Gazette Illinois beat reporter Bob Asmussen. You can follow him on Twitter @BobAsmussen and his coverage of the Fighting Illini here.
Q: Lovie Smith certainly was a splash hire and a bold move by new athletic director Josh Whitman. Did the move pay off for Illinois off the field in the way of fan interest and increased attendance?
Asmussen: Early in the year, definitely. The crowd for the North Carolina game, an announced sellout, was one of the best in years. But remember that bar is pretty low at a school that hasn’t been able to win consistently. Later in the year, even with good teams coming to town, the attendance started to fall off. It shows me that the bottom line is always going to be winning. Fans don’t come to see the coach. They come to see a competitive product and that hasn’t happened this year with Illinois. I will be curious at the end of the year how it all adds up. My guess is there will be an overall increase in attendance, but not by as much as the school hoped. This is going to be a slow rebuild. The (former Illini coach) Tim Beckman era did a lot of damage.
Q: Most people over a certain age recall Jeff George’s skill set and certainly his passing prowess. In what ways is his son, Jeff George Jr., both similar and different from his father on the playing field?
Asmussen: Jeff Sr. is the best quarterback in Illinois history. So if Jr. is anywhere close to dad, it will be a good thing. What separated Jeff Sr. from all other quarterbacks was his stunningly quick release. The ball got from Point A to Point B this fast. It was amazing. I think if he had gone to the right team in the NFL, we would be talking about him as one of the best of all time. Junior certainly has the mental part of the game down. You saw that in the way he led the team against Michigan State (a 31-27 Illini win). But he doesn’t have the arm that his dad had. Nobody does. Where they are vastly different is their mobility. Junior is much better on his feet than dad. He isn’t a great runner, but he is more elusive. That matters because the Illinois offensive line is struggling. One important note: Jeff Sr. had much more talent around him. The line was better. The backs and receivers were better. Put Junior on dad’s team back in the day and he would be very, very good.
Q: Defensive end Dawuane Smoot is considered one of the nation’s best pass rushers. In what ways have opponents tried to limit his effectiveness and how has he overcome their efforts to stifle his performance?
Asmussen: Smoot is getting much more attention. More double-teams. More chips from the running backs and tight ends. The impressive part of Smoot’s game is he hasn’t let him frustrate him. I don’t break down film like the coaches, but his effort seems to be as good in the fourth quarter as it is in the first. He knows the pros are watching and it will mean a higher pick in the draft. The attention has helped Smoot’s teammates, too. Carroll Phillips in particular is among the nation’s best in tackles for loss. Smoot is a big part of that. If I was in charge of an NFL team, I would take a long look at both. They should test well in the spring. I can picture Smoot being a force at the next level. This season has been good for him. He has been forced to learn some tricks to deal with all of the attention.
Q: Illinois has had several explosive playmakers over the years, especially at running back. What makes Kendrick Foster so good in so many different areas?
Asmussen: His performance this season is one of the biggest surprises to me. This is a guy who almost left the program during the offseason. He looked around, but couldn’t find a situation he liked. Illinois is lucky that he stayed. He was a great high school player — one of the most productive in (Illinois) state history. We have picked an all-state team forever and he is the only player ever to make it three times. He uses his size, or lack thereof, to make tacklers miss. He is not super fast, but his speed is deceptive. And he has good hands, which forces teams to pay attention to him out of the backfield. He is locked in as the starter next year and could have a huge season. He is an easy guy to root for, always friendly with plenty to say. And because it took him a while to break into the lineup, he is very patient on the field. That serves him well.
Q: After a five-year absence, the Iowa-Illinois series now is back on as an annual series. Do Illini fans still see the Hawkeyes as a rival or did the break dull the passion in what once was a fiercely competitive series?
Asmussen: In basketball, I would say Illinois fans dislike Iowa more than any other school. It goes back to the Bruce Pearl and Deon Thomas ordeal. Long memories in (Champaign-Urbana). In football, I think it is a series that needs to be reinvigorated. Not playing all those years cut into the interest. The bigger problem for Illinois is not being competitive with Iowa when they do play. Now that the schools are in the same division the rivalry will grow. Iowa does a great job recruiting in Illinois and the new staff wants to slow the flow of talent out of the state. That will help to enhance the rivalry.