Champaign, IL - - It has been 6 years, since the Iowa-Illinois rivalry has been played on the Gridiron in the Big Ten Conference. Since the 2008 season, there have been plenty of changes across the Big Ten and College Football landscape.
The BCS is gone. The new College Football Playoff has been born. The B1G is looking on the outside these days, with the play on the Gridiron.
Three new programs have joined the Big Ten, since Iowa and Illinois last played, in 2008. The Leaders and Legends divisions went bust, but today a new division has emerged, bringing back sooner the Iowa-Illinois game.
The Fighting Illini (4-5, 1-4 B1G West) will be coming off a bye week ahead of today's Iowa game, at Memorial Stadium, after an ugly 55-14 loss at Ohio State. And, sophomore quarterback Wes Lunt is scheduled to return from injury today, against the Hawkeyes.
Illinois third year head coach Tim Beckman grew up in Iowa City during his youth, as his father, Dave was an assistant for Iowa head coach Bob Commings for five end seasons, from 1974-78. He has one B1G win this season, after closing out October, with a 28-24 Homecoming win over Minnesota, fueled by the Golden Gophers mistakes and turnovers.
Illinois is going for their third B1G win in four seasons and first multiple conference win season, since 2011, when they won two B1G games, in Ron Zook's final season, in Champaign. The Fighting Illini
Beckman had this to say about getting his #1 quarterback back for Iowa.
"He (Wes Lunt) was back last week. I'm a firm believer that an injury really can't take your starting position. You deserved it. The injury was a misfortunate incident that happened. If he is healthy, which he is, he'll be our starting quarterback."
"He (Lunt) had a great week last week. It was great to see him out there. He was throwing the ball very well and I think the wide receivers got the sense that he was back out there on the football field. We had two great practices last week."
Iowa rolls into Champaign on a down note, after a 51-14 loss at Minnesota, last Saturday. Another trophy game lost for the Hawkeyes, in two games played this season. The Hawkeyes are now 6-3, 3-2 in B1G West chasing Nebraska, Minnesota and Wisconsin, needing help in the Division race. The Golden Gophers took out their Champaign loss out on the Hawkeyes.
Iowa is facing their fourth straight opponent, who are coming off a bye week. Iowa smoked Northwestern at home 48-7, but lost at Maryland and at Minnesota, for their lone B1G losses, bookended between the B1G win at home over Northwestern to open November.
Iowa is 8-3, since 2006, in this series, but Illinois won the 2008 game 27-24, with a final minute field goal, in Champaign.
What will Saturday bring for two football teams coming off 50 to something losses?
"We've really done a great job as a coaching staff of using the bye weeks in a positive way. I still think it's very important that we go out as coaches and utilize those bye weeks for recruiting, but also these players have played a lot of snaps. Austin (Teitsma) has played quite a few snaps of football. They've been here since June 11th, so it's different from when I played - way different than when (OC Bill) Cubit played - but when I played at least we had some time off. I think when Cubit played, they had months off or something like that. I just think the way that we've handled them is the best for our student-athletes right now," Beckman shared at his weekly press conference.
Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz, the dean of Big Ten football coaches in his 16th season, was asked about facing so many teams, who are coming off bye weeks.
"We seem to be the object of quirks, I guess. But we're not the lone ranger. It's like anything, if you want to use that as a crutch, you can use it. But it still gets down to who plays the best Saturday. And certainly they've had a little bit more opportunity to rest or get ready. And I'm sure they'll do a good job taking advantage of that. We have ample time to get ready. It's not like this game is being played on Wednesday or Thursday. So it's really about what we do this week in terms of our preparation and most importantly what we do at 11:00 on Saturday," Ferentz replied his weekly press conference.
Lunt's return forces Iowa to prepare for three Illinois quarterbacks -- Lunt, senior Reilly O'Toole, and sophomore Aaron Bailey. Ferentz calls all three a little different, but make no mistake about it; the Illini will let the ball fly.
Illinois true freshman wide receiver Mike Dudek has emerged as a top target in the passing game. Dudek is second in yardage and tied for third in receptions in conference play, so the Iowa back 7 will be tested today in the air game.
Which team handles urgency better on Saturday?
Special teams have been a challenge for Iowa, impacting field position this season. "Yeah, it was a big factor (last) Saturday, if you look at their starting position, average field position and ours, it was a huge factor Saturday, as well as turnovers, the basics, penalties, turnovers. And the deal Saturday was turnovers, special teams, I think. I mean, one of the deals. It's not as simple as that. But these guys have a great punter (Illinois senior Justin DuVernois); this guy is one of the best punters in the country. So if you look at it this season, overall punting is not a huge discrepancy between us and our opponents. I think it's about two, two and a half yards. It hasn't been a major factor, but Saturday certainly starting field position was really tilted their direction and that probably is part of the reason why we felt we were running up hill all day long," Ferentz noted heading into game with Illinois.
Turnovers have been a key role in Iowa's three losses on the year. Also, miscues, penalties and field position have played roles.
The battle in the trenches are always important for the old line coach, like Ferentz, or the son of an old line coach in Beckman?
It will be something to watch in Champaign today.
Ferentz pointed out, "I don't know if you charted this stuff or not, but Illinois probably blitzes more than most teams we've played the last couple of weeks at least. That's going to be a different set of challenges for us. And bottom line is it's a big part of passing games. To be successful you have to protect. You gotta give the quarterback time to get his feet set and go through his reads and progression, if there are some. But it all goes together. We've got to run better routes, get free better and catch the ball when it's there."
What will Iowa bring upfront on defense pressuring their opponent, against an Illinois passing attack and what coach Beckman mentioned reshuffling going on in the offensive line?
"We won't have Teddy (Karras), so we're going to have a new face at that guard position that Teddy has played for the three years since I've been here. I think that it will always be our main goal to keep our quarterback healthy and untouched. If that means keeping extra players in to protect, or whatever that means, then we have to have that happen," Beckman shared.
How will the running game play in today's game?
Iowa ranks eighth in the Big Ten at 160 yards per game. Senior Mark Weisman and redshirt freshman Akrum Wadley have emerged the 1-2 punch the past two games for Iowa. Wadley has Iowa's lone 100 yard game for the season, in his first game vs. Northwestern. Weisman shines best around the goal line scoring touchdowns, tied for third.
Illinois ranks 12th in run offense and last in run defense, so what transpires today at Memorial Stadium? Iowa's run defense has slowly declined, as the B1G unfolds.
Is this a breakout game today for either team?
Iowa is bowl eligible, but they have three B1G games to close out the season at Illinois, then back to back home games with Wisconsin and Nebraska, who square off against one another in Madison on ABC at 2:30 p.m.
Illinois has three games against opponents they feel they can match up and steal a win, with Iowa, Penn State and at Northwestern to close out B1G regular season.
Our pick: Iowa 24, Illinois 16 in the 70th meeting in the Iowa-Illinois series. It is a rivalry, without the trophy, but another of four border wars for Iowa to close out 2014 B1G season.
Today's game will be televised live on BTN at 11 a.m. with Cory Provus, J Leman and Rebecca Harlow on the call.