This Saturday, the Illinois Fighting Illini will travel to Iowa City to take on the Hawkeyes in a series that really should have a name. Given that these states are so similar outside of Chicago and border each other, someone needs to engage in some kind of prank that generates a good old-fashioned rivalry trophy.
But from 2008 to 2014, the two schools didn’t play. They were both members of the Big Ten during this time, the scheduling just somehow lined up with the conference realignment such that Illinois met Iowa for the first time since 2008 a few years ago. This will be the first time since 2008 that Illinois has the same head coach that led them into the previous Illinois-Iowa game.
So let’s take a look back at that 2008 game. Coming off a Rose Bowl berth, the Fighting Illini had slipped a bit record-wise with a 5-4 record, and while Missouri and Penn State had been highly ranked when they lost those games, Minnesota and Wisconsin had not. Iowa, had won two straight after a brutal three-game skid with all three losses by less than a touchdown.
The Hawkeyes were led by Shonn Greene, who would go on to gain 1850 yards on the ground, second in the nation only to Connecticut’s Donald Brown. Illini quarterback Juice Williams led the team on an 82-yard touchdown drive. Iowa responded with a field goal, forced a punt and went down and missed a field goal. Williams threw a pick from deep in his own territory, but the defense held on to force another field goal. Later in the second quarter, Donsay Hardeman would intercept a Ricky Stanzi pass to set up an Illinois field goal that produced a 10-6 halftime lead.
After giving up a field goal, the Fighting Illini quickly struck back with a 50-yard Fred Sykes touchdown reception. A Derek Walker sack forced Iowa to punt from the shadow of their own end zone, but on the very first play of the ensuing drive, Williams threw another interception, this time to Bradley Fletcher. Nevertheless, Iowa couldn’t get out past their own 10, as Josh Brent came up with a sack on this short drive. An exchange of punts once again pinned Iowa inside their own 20, and once again the pass rush was in full force. This time it was defensive back Dere Hicks, who not only sacked Stanzi, but stripped the ball, recovered the fumble and returned it 7 yards to the end zone. Early in the fourth quarter, this pushed the Illinois lead to 24-9.
Iowa wasn’t quite done yet, as Stanzi quickly pushed the ball down the field for a touchdown pass to Andy Brodell. Vontae Davis muffed the subsequent kickoff, but managed to recover the ball. An exchange of punts followed, and Illinois began a drive with Williams, Mikel Leshoure and Jason Ford trying to run out the clock. Unfortunately, before they could get to their own 40, Ford fumbled the ball and Iowa recovered. Silent most of the day, Shonn Greene punished a tired Illini defense for a touchdown that was capped off by a passing 2-point conversion to tie the game at 24.
Williams went back to work with 2:20 to go and drove Illinois down the field, finding Jeff Cumberland, Eddie McGee, Leshoure and Benn among others. The drive stalled at Iowa’s 29, and with 24 seconds to go Matt Eller drilled a 46-yard field goal to put Illinois ahead. A desperation drive was thwarted by a Vontae Davis interception.
Illinois had held Greene to 103 yards on just 21 carries, as Iowa was playing from behind most of the day. Stanzi went 11 for 29 against a stingy Illini defense. Iowa would go on to knock off #3 Penn State on the road and win all four remaining games, including the Outback Bowl against South Carolina. Illinois, on the other hand, would lose the remaining 3 games on their schedule, including to Bill Cubit’s Western Michigan Broncos at Ford Field in Detroit.
The weeks following the 2008 game spoke volumes to the directions of these two programs. It should be remembered as a dramatic chapter of this rivalry, but it’s not been very competitive since it’s revival in 2014. Could it be on Saturday?