IOWA CITY, Iowa —Bridges straddle the Mississippi River along the border that separates Iowa from Illinois.
Communities are fiercely provincial on opposite sides of the nation’s greatest waterway, especially in the Quad Cities, a metro area of about 400,000. But their partisanship stops when college scholarships come into play. That’s when Iowa’s territory bubbles as far east as Lake Michigan.
In every type of recruiting, no outside state matters to the University of Iowa quite like Illinois. In the fall of 2015, the University of Iowa’s in-state freshman enrollment hit 47 percent. Newcomers from Illinois surpassed 30 percent. Most of those students are from the Chicagoland area, located about 3 hours, 30 minutes away from Iowa City. Depending on traffic, of course.
Enrollment statistics mirror Iowa’s football roster. The Hawkeyes have 20 members who played high school football in Illinois. In its last five classes, Iowa has signed 17 Illinois recruits. The program inked just 26 from its home state over the same span.
Illinois has served Iowa well over the years, and Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz admits his program wouldn’t compete in the Big Ten without invading its more populous neighbor.
“It’s really important to us for a couple of reasons,” Ferentz said of recruiting Illinois. “First of all, our population in-state is just around 3 million. So, naturally, the conclusion is we can’t exist solely on Iowa players, although we’ve had so many great players from this state. So we have to branch out, and all the surrounding areas certainly make sense.
“The interesting thing is you get to Chicago a lot faster than you can Sioux City from Iowa City. A huge part of our student body population — I think it’s about 35 to 40 percent — is from the Chicagoland area. So there’s a real natural attraction that way. So it makes perfect sense for us to work that state hard.”
On Iowa’s current two-deep, 10 players hail from Illinois. Four defensive starters — tackle Jaleel Johnson, tackle Faith Ekakitie, linebacker Ben Niemann and cornerback Manny Rugamba — played high school football in the Land of Lincoln. Punter Ron Coluzzi is from Naperville. Nate Wieting (Rockford) opened last week in Iowa’s two-tight end alignment. Brothers Ryan (tackle) and Kevin Ward (outside linebacker) are backups from Homer Glen. Backup fullback Austin Kelly (Hickory Hills) and linebacker Jack Hockaday (Forsyth) see frequent action.
|Iowa two-deep players from Illinois||Position||Illinois city|
|Faith Ekakitie||DT||Lake Forest (via Ontario, Canada)|
|Kevin Ward||LB||Homer Glen|
|Ryan Ward||OT||Homer Glen|
|Austin Kelly||FB||Hickory Hills|
The impact those players had on last week’s 14-13 upset over No. 3 Michigan is immeasurable. When the Hawkeyes trailed 10-0, Coluzzi pinned the Wolverines to the 2-yard line. Two plays later, Johnson tackled Michigan running back De’Veon Smith in the end zone for a safety.
On Michigan’s next offensive series, Niemann had a quarterback hurry and a one-yard stop on consecutive plays. Rugamba then broke up a third-down pass, which helped Iowa get the ball back near midfield.
Johnson, a Lombard native, finished with nine tackles, a sack and a safety. He was named the Big Ten’s defensive player of the week. Rugamba, who hails from Naperville, was tabbed the league’s freshman player of the week. He recorded an interception and three break-ups, including one in the end zone and another on Michigan’s final offensive play.
It’s not just this year that Illinois has come through for the Iowa football program. It’s every year. In 1985, Iowa quarterback Chuck Long finished second in Heisman Trophy voting. He’s from Wheaton. The kicker that year who stroked the 29-yard game-winner in the No. 1 Hawkeyes’ 12-10 win over No. 2 Michigan was Rob Houghtlin, who grew up in Winnetka.
Basketball has benefitted even more from Illinois. Iowa qualified for consecutive Final Fours in 1955 and 1956, the latter of which included an NCAA title game appearance. Four of Iowa’s five starters were from Illinois. Iowa’s best-ever point guard was Ronnie Lester, who guided the Hawkeyes to the 1980 Final Four. Lester was from Chicago, as were two other primary starters that year. The 1986-87 squad set the school record with 30 wins. Starters Ed Horton and Kevin Gamble were from Illinois. So was Don Nelson, the NBA’s all-time winningest coach. He played for the Hawkeyes from 1960-62.
All of this brings us to Iowa’s matchup Saturday in Champaign (noon ET, BTN). In the class of 2016, the state of Illinois produced 37 recruits rated as 3 or 4 stars by Rivals. Iowa signed five. The Fighting Illini inked two. Edwardsville prep A.J. Epenesa, the state’s top-ranked recruit in 2017, is committed to Iowa. Epenesa, a Rivals’ 4-star defensive end, was one of the first recruits first-year Illini coach Lovie Smith followed on Twitter after taking the job last March.
Players on both sides know one another from their prep sports days. Niemann, who grew up near DeKalb in Sycamore, knows several Illini players personally. Returning to Illinois isn’t necessarily a daily discussion this week for the players, Niemann said, but he adds, “If you can beat your home state team, that’s kind of a cool thing.”
Iowa (20) has nearly as many players from Illinois as the Illini (29). When he was hired in March, Smith said his program’s recruiting priority forms an acute triangle north to Chicago, southwest to St. Louis and east to Indianapolis. Iowa also lives in that world, and Smith knows it.
“I think there’s a couple of teams that you have tradition with,” Smith said. “This used to be our main rival, the University of Iowa.”
For the Illini — and Smith — to have long-term success, they need to shove Iowa around on the field and budge the Hawkeyes from the living rooms. Until the Illini do, the state of Illinois will continue to serve as a borderless pipeline to Iowa.