IOWA CITY, Iowa — Universally, the point spread for this week’s Iowa-Illinois game says the Hawkeyes will win by 20 points or more.
Anything less than an Iowa victory would result in pitchforks and torches at Kinnick Stadium. With an $89 million north end zone renovation on deck, that kind of thinking could get dangerous.
Let’s go with the obvious for Saturday: Iowa should win the game decisively. Illinois (2-2, 0-1 Big Ten) just announced a quarterback change and has started 10 first-year players in four games. The Fighting Illini rank 126th nationally in total offense at 267.3 yards per game and 91st in rushing defense at 179.5 yards per game.
There are plenty of other unflattering numbers to back up a case that Illinois might not win a Big Ten game this season.
Unless Iowa falls flat in multiple areas, the game Saturday should end Iowa’s two-game losing slide. It’s important for a confident but frustrated team. Any victory matters, especially in Big Ten play and doubly so considering the Hawkeyes (3-2, 0-2 Big Ten) are idle next week.
“Any win makes you feel good, honestly,” Iowa linebacker Ben Niemann said. “We have this week and then the bye week, so if we can play well and put a good game together in all three phases, it definitely would be good and probably a confidence boost going into the bye.
“But we’re just trying to get better in practice this week, and that’s where it’s going to start if we want it to carry over into Kinnick on Saturday.”
Iowa has dropped its last two games by a combined 9 points. On Sept. 23, No. 4-ranked Penn State scored on the game’s final play in a 21-19 win against the Hawkeyes. Last Saturday, Iowa gained only 19 rushing yards and committed two costly turnovers inside Michigan State territory to fall 17-10 at Spartan Stadium.
The positive vibe from Iowa’s 3-0 start or even the near-upset of Penn State fizzled after the loss at Michigan State. There are multiple problem areas, starting with the running game. Iowa’s offensive line repeatedly was stonewalled or pushed back by the Spartans. The rushing output was the lowest for Iowa since a loss at Ohio State in 2005.
“We need kind of a little pick-me-up,” Iowa offensive lineman Boone Myers said. “I think if we get guys doing the right thing coming off the ball and attacking, it’ll definitely kind of get the ball rolling and start showing everyone what it feels like coming off the ball. What it feels like to come out and attack, reach your keys, read the defense, stuff like that. You could say this game would get the ball rolling.”
For Iowa’s ailing running game, Illinois’ defense provides an elixir. After holding Western Kentucky to 6 rushing yards, the Illini gave up 376 on the ground to South Florida. Last week against Nebraska, Illinois allowed 165.
But if Iowa’s ground game has a golden performance Saturday, will be it more like fool’s gold considering the opponent? That’s something that won’t be known until later in the season. Right now Iowa’s players are concentrating on putting together one good performance.
“Eventually [the running game is] going to break and everything’s going to start clicking,” Myers said. “I don’t know when that’s going to be. Hopefully it’s this week. It’s football, and we’ve got a lot of young guys, and it’s up and down. We’re almost there.”
Iowa’s defense will face a new starting quarterback in Jeff George Jr., son of the Illini starter in the late 1980s. The Illini passing game has struggled, ranking 113th at 161.3 yards per game and 102nd in completion percentage (54.0). After facing a high-powered offense in Penn State and Michigan State’s decent pitch-and-catch combination of Brian Lewerke and Felton Davis, this game could provide Iowa’s defense with a shot of confidence.
But it still won’t erase the defense’s aggravation of falling short to a pair of Big Ten opponents. In fact, losing close games does the opposite of inspiring confidence.
“I think it’s more frustrating,” Iowa defensive end Parker Hesse said. “We know what we’re capable of and the potential that we have on this team. We can compete with anyone. That’s why they play the games, because anyone can win. We know we’re never going to take the field feeling that we’re not going to win this game.
“It’s frustrating when you do know that, and then a couple of plays are the difference in the game. But you can’t let that get you down. That’s the thing, that doesn’t define us. … But we’re not going to strive to be a team that’s a play or two away. We’re going to get out, we’re going to fix the mistakes and we’re going to win football games.”
As for coach Kirk Ferentz, the focus now is on keeping a narrow mental outlook and working on continuous improvement. Any implications beyond this week have been discarded.
“The best we can do is come out of this thing with one win before the bye, and that’s our goal,” Ferentz said. “That’s the best we can do this week regardless. We just need to — we need to worry about this Saturday, playing better football, first and foremost, and then if we do that, hopefully we can come out with a victory.”
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