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Neighbors Growing Together | Sep 19, 2018

Preview: Iowa football vs Illinois

By Jeremiah Davis, The Gazette | Oct 05, 2017

It’s probably hard to get enthusiastic about football at the start of a week like this, and even just in the prism of football — and not everything else happening beyond sports — the weeks following a frustrating loss can be hard to slog through. Still, the Iowa football team returns home to face an Illinois team in much rougher shape (at least on paper).

Let’s take a look at 5 Things: Iowa football vs Illinois — with a nod to Tom Petty, who suffered cardiac arrest Monday, and whose music is applicable for pretty much any situation:

1. Illinois's quarterback situation

Lovie Smith probably wasn’t channeling Tom Petty when he’s uttered some version of “time to move on,” when referencing his football teams, but boy, has he said it a lot. Monday, it was about the starting quarterback for the Illini, which might’ve given Chicago Bears fans more than a few unpleasant flashbacks.

Smith named Jeff George Jr. the Illinois starter on Monday, and Cam Thomas the No. 2, meaning Chayce Crouch, the starter the first four weeks, is QB3.

“We made a change at the quarterback position,” Smith said. “Jeff George is in the number one position right now. He’s next in line. I’ve always talked about a starting rotation. I can’t put everything in blood. So with that, next is Cam Thomas.”

Since he’s been at Illinois, Smith has overseen three different starting quarterbacks: Wes Lunt, George and Crouch. Lunt was supposed to be the main man of that group last season but battled injuries and inconsistent play. He started seven games, while George got four and Crouch one (before a season-ending injury of his own).

Crouch had completed 53.2 percent of his passes for 427 yards, one touchdown and four interceptions so far this season while running for 93 net yards and one touchdown — which makes him the No. 2 rusher.

for the Illini. George has seen action in one game this season, going 12 of 22 for 211 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions in the loss to South Florida on Sept. 15.

Crouch said after the Nebraska loss he was told he was “the guy.” Not so much anymore.

A lack of a defined quarterback plagued Smith in other parts of his coaching career (see: Bears from 2004-2008, Buccaneers 2014), and it’s plagued the Illini in his first 16 games leading them.

2. Breakdown, go ahead and give it to me

Last season’s matchup between Iowa and Illinois was a bleak affair. It was overcast and below freezing in Champaign, Ill. that day, and a not-large amount of Illini fans showed up at Memorial Stadium that day.

The Hawkeyes left with a 28-0 victory in which it took most of the first half to get going — a 55-yard Riley McCarron punt return the first score of the game. C.J. Beathard was 9 of 17 for 80 yards and an interception. Wes Lunt was 19 of 41 for 137 yards and an interception. It was not pretty football. But it was Iowa’s last shutout.

Oddly enough, shutouts used to be a staple of this neighboring-state, Big Ten rivalry. The two teams have played 72 times, and the game has ended in a shutout in 21 of those — 14 between 1899 and 1948.

While it’s only happened twice in the Ferentz era (Iowa’s win last year and a 31-0 Illinois win in 2000), in the early days of the series (and college football, period) it was a regular occurrence. Illinois has shut out Iowa 13 times in total, including an 80-0 win in 1902 that wasn’t even Iowa’s worst loss all-time — or that season (107-0 at Michigan three weeks before that).

There also was a 0-0 tie in 1936 that probably put whatever was bleak about last year to shame.

3. The waiting is the hardest part

Smith’s Illini team started this season 2-0, with wins against Ball State and Western Kentucky. Even if neither win was emphatic, the victories were at least encouraging for the Illinois faithful. That has since dissipated — in a hurry. A 47-23 loss to No. 16 South Florida and a 28-6 loss to Nebraska will do that.

Smith is now 5-11 as head coach at Illinois. He was 8-24 in his two seasons as head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — 2-14 in 2014 and 6-10 in 2015, with Jameis Winston in his rookie year. That means Smith has led football teams to 13 wins in four years. His final year as Chicago Bears head coach, they went 10-6 (finishing third in the NFC North and missing the playoffs, prompting his firing).

The last time Smith led a football team to a winning season, Barack Obama had just been re-elected president, Call Me Maybe was the No. 1 song in the country and The Avengers had just started the ensemble superhero movie craze. Five years isn’t that long ago, yet seems like a million years ago at the same time.

4. I Won’t Back Down

This series hasn’t really been much of a rivalry since Kirk Ferentz came to Iowa City. Given both schools’ history with the Big Ten and against each other, old school fans have to be a little disappointed with what it’s become.

Since Ferentz’s first two years (40-24 and 31-0 Illinois victories), the Hawkeyes have won eight of the nine matchups between the two teams. That included the 10-6 Iowa win in 2007, a season in which Illinois went to the Rose Bowl (and lost, 49-17, to USC) under Ron Zook.

The two teams played each year from 2003-2008, but then somehow went five years without playing thanks to schedule rotations and then conference realignment. Iowa’s won three straight now, and probably should make it a fourth (and nine of the last 10) on Saturday.

5. You Wreck Me (Against the spread)

Yeah, Petty was singing about a woman, but “You Wreck Me” felt applicable here given how often betting on sports can wreck a person.

In any case, the Hawkeyes are an 18-point favorite as of Monday afternoon for Saturday’s Homecoming game, down two from the opening line of minus-20. That’s a big number given Iowa hasn’t exactly lit the world on fire the last two weeks on offense. Still, Illinois is a team giving up an average of 427.5 yards per game to opponents while producing just 267.2 per game on offense.

As pointed out above, the Illini got shut out last year, and just replaced a quarterback who was the second-leading rusher on the team. So if possible, there’s less certainty around the team now than a year ago. Betting this game will be exceedingly hard based on the last two weeks for both teams, but Vegas setting this line there means at least a few people haven’t given up on the Hawkeyes’ ability to produce points.

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