Iowa football looks pretty good compared to lowly Illinois

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By Pat Harty

IOWA CITY, Iowa – My advice to Iowa football fans for how to handle tough times like the current is think about Illinois.

Think about what the Hawkeyes have accomplished in football over the past quarter century and then compare it to Illinois.

It probably won’t make the last two losses against Penn State and Michigan State, which came by two and seven points, respectively, feel any better. But Illinois’ ongoing struggles in football should help to put things in perspective.

Illinois is a 17-point underdog heading into Saturday’s homecoming game against Iowa at Kinnick Stadium.

Iowa trails the all-time series 32-38-2, but the Hawkeyes have won 11 of the last 14 meetings, eight of the last nine and three in a row.

Iowa’s recent dominance in the series says a lot about Iowa, bet even more about lowly Illinois, which hasn’t had a winning season since finishing 7-6 in 2011, and has only had four winning seasons since 2000.

Since 1979, which was Hayden Fry’s first season as the Iowa coach, Iowa has had 26 winning seasons, while Illinois has had just 15.

The Fighting Illini, with records of 2-2 overall and 0-1 in the conference, are at risk of having yet another losing season. Next Saturday’s home game against Rutgers in all likelihood will be the only time Illinois isn’t an underdog for the rest of the season.

Illinois also hasn’t won at Kinnick Stadium since 1999, which was Kirk Ferentz’s first season as the Iowa head coach.

Ferentz was asked on Tuesday to access the Illinois program, but he skillfully dodged the question by shifting his attention to each team’s schedule.

Iowa went from 2009 to 2013 without playing Illinois despite the two schools being Big Ten border rivals.

“You just kind of play what's in front of you, and they haven't been in front of us, so I think they were over here and we were over there," Ferentz said. “It's kind of strange actually if you just think about it from a geography standpoint, but that's a byproduct of expansion and progress.”

The decision to hire Lovie Smith as the Illinois head coach before the 2016 seasons was intriguing, and an example of thinking outside the box. But whether it was the right hire remains to be seen, because so far, there is little to support that argument.

Smith is the ninth different head coach for Illinois since 1979, while Iowa has had just two head coaches during that time.

The fact that Illinois has struggled for so long in football is hard for some to understand with talent-rich Chicago barely a two-hour drive from the Illinois campus in Champaign, Ill.

However, former Iowa offensive Don Patterson said during his 20 seasons on the Iowa staff from 1979-98 that many of the recruits who live in or around Chicago kind of thought it was cool not to attend Illinois. They wanted to carve their own paths to out-of-state schools, which included Iowa.

Chicago is a feeding ground in recruiting for major college football programs, but rarely has Illinois been seated at the head of the table.  

Illinois has started 11 true freshmen this season, which is more than any other FBS team in the nation. The 10 true freshmen that started against South Florida in week three are the most in a game in program history.

The youth movement might buy Smith more time to rebuild the program, but it does little to help with the present. The 10 freshmen who started against South Florida took their share of lumps as Illinois lost, 47-23.

Illinois enters Saturday’s game ranked last in the Big Ten in scoring offense, rushing offense, rushing defense, total defense, total offense, pass defense efficiency, first downs, opponent’s first downs and opponent’s third-down conversions.

You name it and Illinois struggles to do it.

Iowa should win this game handily by doing what Iowa loves to do, which is use the run to set up the pass. Iowa's rushing attack has sputtered for much of the season, but Illinois' sieve-like defense could provide the ideal cure.

Illinois is surrendering 179.5 rushing yards and 248.0 passing yards per game.

The game has mismatch written all over, unless Iowa continues to struggle with ball security. Two or three early fumbles followed by Illinois touchdowns on short drives could trigger an upset.

Iowa lost two costly fumbles in the 17-10 loss at Michigan State last Saturday.

“Just going down the list, obviously, ball security, the turnover issue is something we're going to have to address, handling the blitz, and then just overall developing a kind of confidence and grit it takes to be successful home or away,” Ferentz said. “But that was our first away game in Big Ten, and I don't think we handled the whole thing very, very well.

“That's part of the equation with some newer players. I'm certain that factored into it a little bit, and we're going to have to get over that and learn how to play a little bit better, so that's the next challenge for us.”

The Iowa players were reluctant on Tuesday to call the Illinois game a must-win for any other reason besides it being the next game on the schedule.

“Every game is a must win,” said Iowa senior running back Akrum Wadley. “If we want to stay on track and complete our goals, every game is a must win from here on out.”

The Illinois game more than anything is one that Iowa can’t afford to lose. Only twice has Iowa started 0-3 in conference play under Ferentz. The first time was in 1999 when Iowa was as bad as Illinois is now, and the second time was in 2007 when the Hawkeyes finished 6-6 and failed to make a bowl game.

Both teams will be desperate for a win on Saturday, but at some point, desperation give way to talent and experience, and Iowa clearly has the advantage in both areas. 

Prediction: Iowa 38, Illinois 17