By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – From a double-digit underdog one week to a double-digit favorite the next, welcome to the up-and-down journey of the 2016 Iowa football team.
Just when you thought that Iowa’s once-promising season was ready to unravel, the Hawkeyes do the improbable by defeating then No. 2 Michigan 14-13 this past Saturday at Kinnick Stadium. The Wolverines were undefeated and favored by as many as 22 points against an Iowa team that had been humiliated the week before at Penn State, losing 41-14.
And yet, an injury-riddled Iowa team still found a way to prevail at home, thanks to true freshman Keith Duncan’s 33-yard field goal as time expired.
Iowa now heads back on the road to face an Illinois team that is sort of in the same situation that Iowa was in last week as a double-digit underdog at home.
“The biggest thing just like last week, we have to turn the page, do a great job with our preparation, and block out any noise that might be there, and focus solely on Illinois, and try to get ready for them and a tough road game in the Big Ten,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday.
Part of Ferentz’s challenge this week is to convince his players that Illinois, despite its 3-7 record, deserves the same respect, focus and preparation that was given to mighty Michigan last week. It shouldn’t matter that Illinois is ranked in the lower half of conference in almost every statistical category, including 13th in total offense and passing offense, 12th in scoring defense and 11th in total defense and rushing defense.
“As I said last week, the whole key is to move forward,” Ferentz said. “It's going to be the same thing this week, probably a bigger challenge in some ways. Last week, our guys are out there every day. And last week, I'm sure they were hearing some negativity, just guessing they were, now it's just the opposite.
“Really, the challenge is to ignore both of those things and focus on what you're trying to do. Not that you don't think about outside things, I'm not suggesting that, but if you want to win games you really have to block out time where you're really focused and working on what it is that's important to your job and what's important to your football team.”
Illinois has shown a pulse at times this season under first-year head coach Lovie Smith. Its three victories have come against Murray State (52-3), Rutgers (24-7) and Michigan State (31-27).
Ferentz could point out to his players that Illinois beat Rutgers on the road by a wider margin than Iowa’s 14-7 victory over the Scarlet Knights in the Big Ten opener.
“Last week was a challenge and this week, too, certainly with the emotions playing into it,” Ferentz said.
Illinois hardly is Michigan from a talent standpoint, but there is talent on the Illinois roster, most notably running backs Kendrick Foster, Ke’Shawn Vaughn and Reggie Corbin, defensive ends Carroll Phillips and Dawuane Smoot and linebacker Hardy Nickerson.
Illinois has five runs this season of at least 50 yards, which is tied for 10th in the nation. Foster had a pair of 56-yard touchdown runs against Rutgers and a 64-yard dash against Michigan State.
Combine the explosiveness on offense with the talent at defensive end and with Nickerson playing linebacker and the Fighting Illini are no pushover when they perform well.
Saturday’s game will be the final home game for Illinois in which 24 seniors will be recognized on the field before the game.
You could argue that it’s easier picking Illinois to upset Iowa than it was to pick Iowa to upset Michigan last week.
“You’ve got to go game-by-game understanding you just take the small details and try force it into every practice and stay focused for every practice and stay really determined and still have the energy that we had last week,” said Iowa junior linebacker Josey Jewell. “Just carrying over from last week and being able to understand that we can’t go up and down. We can’t ride the roller coaster. We have to keep moving straight ahead.”
The outcome of Saturday’s game will impact Iowa’s bowl options, which currently range from possibly the Holiday Bowl in sunny San Diego to the Quick Lane Bowl in not-so-sunny Detroit on the day after Christmas.
Iowa could finish a respectable 8-4 or a not-so-respectable 6-6 this season. Neither record is was most fans expected heading into the season, but 8-4 is far from a disaster.
Iowa needs to take care of business on Saturday, quickly and convincingly. The weather could be a factor with high winds in the forecast. But that shouldn’t matter if Iowa establishes its rushing attack.
The combination of Akrum Wadley and LeShun Daniels at running back should be enough for Iowa to ground and pound from start to finish. The Hawkeyes should be able to control the clock and rush for at least 200 yards against an Illinois defense that is allowing 209.0 yards per game.
But we saw this past Saturday that anything can happen in competition.
And if we’ve learned anything about this Iowa team, it is to take nothing for granted.
Prediction: Iowa 34, Illinois 20