Welcome to The Champaign Room Freshman Guide to Big Ten Football! As we’re now a full 15 years from my fall semester on the fourth floor of Allen Hall (pre-air conditioning), it occurs to me that I have a wealth of familiarity with our Big Ten foes that our incoming freshmen simply haven’t accumulated yet. Over the next month, I’ll be hosting this crash course on each of our conference opponents: what’s their deal, how good are they, who do we need to watch out for, and why they suck. My work at SBNation’s Big Ten blog Off Tackle Empire has exposed me to a lot of opposing fandom and information on the rest of our conference brethren.
Cross the Mississippi and you’ll get to the home of the
Iowa wins roughly 8.2 games per year, plays good defense and special teams, plays an offense whose main purpose is to run the clock, and occasionally beats a top 10 team at home. That’s it. That’s all they’ve done for decades.
Okay, that’s not the entire story, but that’s the main takeaway from this.
Enjoying the high profile established for the Big Ten by Bob Zuppke’s Fighting Illini in the 1910’s, Iowa won two national titles in 1921 and 1922. Iowa was not spared the rampage of Zuppke’s 1924 Illini squad, taking a 36-0 loss, but they stayed competitive with Zuppke throughout the end of his tenure.
In 1939, Iowa back Nile Kinnick had the great fortune of not seeing Illinois on the schedule and for this reason he was able to become Iowa’s only Heisman winner. The stadium in which they play bears his name to this day.
When Ray Eliot took over at Illinois, he ripped off a streak of eleven straight against the Hawkeyes that culminated in a 1952 game where Iowa fans, thinking a win against Ohio State made them invincible, threw bottles and garbage at the officials. Clearly the officials had been responsible for their 27-0 halftime deficit.
Iowa agreed with Illinois’ assessment that Iowa fans (and even some of their players!) were just too big of assholes to emotionally handle getting waxed by the Illini yet again, so they didn’t play again for 15 years.
WIthout Illinois there to regulate, Iowa somehow claimed three national titles in ‘56, ‘58 and ‘60. Of course, in ‘56, preseason #1 Oklahoma went 10-0, and in 1960, Iowa shared the Big Ten title with a Minnesota team that beat them, but they claim those national titles nevertheless. Anyway, after 1960, Iowa suddenly decided to suck for two decades.
That ended when Hayden Fry came to Iowa in 1980 and revitalized the dead program. The difference between Fry and Illinois’ Mike White is that Fry was doing it in a way that wasn’t an existential threat to Michigan, and so the power brokers in the Big Ten left him alone. Generally speaking, he would get between 8 or 9 wins a year with the occasional .500 season and the occasional 10-win season with a major bowl game and a league title.
In 1999, Iowa flirted with being terrible as they upgraded Hayden Fry’s firmware to a version called “Kirk Ferentz,” which remains the name of Iowa’s coach to this day. He does the same things as his predecessor.
History vs Illinois
I’ve already discussed the early history, and perhaps that’s because there’s not much fun to discuss. There have been hideous blowouts both ways, from 31-0 and 50-0 shutouts in consecutive home games by Illinois in the early 70’s to the 33-0 shutout of Fry’s Hawkeyes in 1983 to announce the Illini’s legitimacy to a butthurt-fueled 59-0 thrashing of Illinois in Iowa City two years later. Lou Tepper laid a pair of consecutive 40-point bloodbaths on Iowa in the early 90’s and Ron Turner would dish out a 31-0 shutout of the Hawks in 2001.
You might be sensing a running theme throughout these previews already and it will not surprise you that since 2001, this series has been incredibly one-sided in favor of the Hawkeyes. A 27-24 upset of Shonn Greene’s 2008 Iowa squad is the only win for Illinois in the last 20 years.
Iowa also dished out the worst loss in Fighting Illini history in 2018. It was a very average Iowa team that had already blown its shot to achieve more than the standard 8-4 that season, and so Iowa fans didn’t even care about the 63-0 score.
Overall, Illinois (5 national championships, 15 conference titles) is 38-37-2 against Iowa (5 national championships, 13 conference titles)
Last season was an aberration. Iowa got 1.5 more wins than usual, finishing with 10 wins. They did, however, lose two postseason games to get their usual 4 losses in.
Even for Iowa, their offense was horrendously bad last year. The Hawkeyes instead relied on a ballhawking defensive secondary and phenomenal special teams to win them games. After beating overrated Indiana and Iowa State teams to start, they rocketed into the top 5 in the polls. An injury to Penn State’s starting quarterback and best defensive player and the Nittany Lions being horribly unprepared to use the backup QB allowed Iowa to complete a comeback for a 23-20 win that boosted them to #2 in the nation.
After being smoked by Purdue and Wisconsin, Iowa decided to do as many stupid things as possible without losing another game. The Hawkeyes escaped a terrible Northwestern team, then held off an equally hideous offense in Minnesota. The Illini had them on the ropes until multiple play-altering holds right in the middle of the action cleared the way for a Charlie Jones punt return touchdown.
Jones transferred to Purdue this offseason because he was interested in playing for a team that might throw him the ball.
Escaping Nebraska somehow meant that Iowa had stumbled into the Big Ten championship game. The rest of the Big Ten West should be embarrassed for allowing that to happen. They were rolled 42-3 by Michigan and then blew a late lead in a bowl game against Kentucky to finish 10-4.
Coaching Staff & Identity
Kirk Ferentz is the longest-tenured head coach in the Big Ten and things are not going to change whatsoever. They will run the stretch play (outside zone) a lot, they will identify their most talented back and give him only 30% of the carries, they will have a large white dude sailing passes 20 feet out of bounds on a 5 yard out to a tight end that will be an NFL All-Pro some day, they will play great special teams and stifling defense, and they will win 8 games.
Brian Ferentz is the offensive coordinator and Kirk is trying to set Iowa Football up as a hereditary monarchy. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker took over for the unrelated Norm Parker after the latter’s 2013 retirement and has only made one change, going from the traditional 4-3 to a 4-2-5 for most snaps starting in 2019.
Dudes To Watch
Tory Taylor is absolutely one of the better punters in the country and certainly does his part to elevate Iowa’s special teams. Some linebacker is going to emerge as a star, and while tight end Sam LaPorta is certainly an NFL guy, don’t expect him to actually be part of the offense. This is an Iowa thing.
The defensive secondary is possibly the strongest unit. Corner Riley Moss led the nation in interceptions before an untimely season ending injury. Safety Kaevon Merriweather is also a likely all-conference selection.
Season Prediction & Fan Expectations
They’re going 8-4 because they’re Iowa. Fans expect this, because they’re Iowa. They really want to beat Iowa State in the famous El Assico rivalry game, and they’d like to beat Minnesota, Nebraska and Wisconsin as part of what’s known as the Quadrangle Of Hate.
Will that be enough to win the Big Ten West? Maybe.
Illinois Game Prediction
I really think the loss of Blake Hayes sets us back here. What we should keep in mind is that Kirk Ferentz is not afraid to punt from the opponent’s 30 on fourth and short. How that affects this game I’m not certain but it will definitely make it infuriating.
Look, we are going to get them eventually. I don’t think it’ll be this year, but it certainly could be
Why Iowa Sucks
I’m from Naperville, so I’m uniquely qualified to tell you about Iowa fans. Illinois wasn’t my primary destination from day one, so I never had Iowa as my backup plan, but if you’re from the suburbs and you went to Illinois then you definitely know a lot of people who did. They’re probably holding up this football thing as a point of pride and a thing that makes them better than you.
Don’t listen to them. After all, you got into the school they wanted to go to.
I stayed at a friend’s place one weekend during his last semester at Illinois. He was an electrical engineering student like his father before him. His father had come to the United States from India to study engineering and made a life out of it. This was a fall semester, so it was going to be a winter graduation. My friend, therefore, wasn’t sure if he should bother attending the graduation ceremony and walking on stage to get his degree.
His dad, suddenly animated, told him about his days preparing to go to America and his dream of studying at a world-renowned engineering school. Illinois, he said, was his dream, but he wasn’t admitted and therefore he, in his words, “had to settle for going to god damned Iowa.” He wanted to see his son get the degree he couldn’t get back in his youth and he got his wish.
Anyway, Kirk Ferentz is absolutely the king of the castle that is Iowa City. The peasants still pine for former strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle, who they believe was forced out unfairly. Was it for an incident where, supposedly to punish players for not hustling hard enough in a three point bowl win over Missouri, Doyle’s first workout after winter break sent 13 players to the hospital with rhabdomyolysis? Nope. In fact, three months after an investigation concluded that he shouldn’t be fired for this, Ferentz gave him an award for assistant of the year.
No, instead it was after over a dozen former players filed suit against the program alleging that pointed racism, bullying and abuse had adversely affected their post-Iowa careers. Ever the loyal soldier, Doyle took the bullet for his king and resigned. Of course, the lawsuit is still ongoing and there has not been a settlement conference. It’ll be interesting to see if this actually goes to trial.
Iowa fans believe that they are beyond reproach because a children’s hospital overlooks the stadium and they wave to it after every first quarter. This means they can boo injured Penn State players in situations where an injury stoppage wouldn’t even benefit Penn State. Iowa fans put me in a position where I’m defending Penn State. Do you know how disgusting that is?
Iowa could have prevented Illinois from winning the conference in basketball this past year, but then I outplayed Jordan Bohannon in the season finale.
Jacob Rajlich: 63-0 my junior year. Not only did I go to the game and stay for almost all of it, but I was a new writer for TCR back then. I predicted a 38-28 W for the Illini. It was my introduction to the perils of publicizing one’s sports takes, and naturally I paid for it at the hands of Hawkeye Twitter. At least I got a kickass Illini bomber cap as a giveaway for my pain and suffering, both in person and online.
TCRBrad: Where do I begin…?
Look, I’m as much of an “Iowa Respecter” as the next Big Ten meat head…but it is painfully frustrating to watch a team in the Iowa Hawkeyes employ a guy solely based on nepotism rather than performance. And it’s not all Brian’s fault, either. Sure you brought back Ken O’Keefe as an advisor to bring the Iowa offense back to the glory days of Ricky Stanzi, but all he’s done is recruit Spencer Petras and Carson May to join a program that will inevitably kill their football careers with underdeveloped QB production and bad play calling.
And the rest of the staff isn’t off the hook either…George Barnett has been fine building an offensive line so he can stay, but Seth Wallace can’t find an offensive player better than Tyler Goodson (we’ll see about Bostick at WR), Eric Johnson left to open a Culver’s because he wasn’t racist enough for the staff anymore (he later joined Wisconsin), and if it wasn’t for Jay Niemann on defense bailing out the offensive staff you’d be looking at Lester Erb from 2005 for your best offensive recruiting production (fittingly…a Tight End). 4 Illinois Offense recruiters in less time have ranked higher than Iowa’s best recruiting offensive coach. That’s right…the 103rd ranked offense in college football is out-recruiting you at skill positions. Yeeeeeesh.
What REALLY chaps my ass about all of it? Athletic director Gary Barta’s sexist agenda is going to more than likely name Brian Ferentz the heir to the throne of Iowa football, only to continue the tradition of the 3rd worst athletic program in the conference. On one hand I am HERE FOR IT…since all I deal with in suburban Chicago are Iowa grads from Naperville tripping the light fantastic about the Outback Bowl and how the Hawkeyes are an elite college football program. Don’t get me wrong, I would LOVE to have what Iowa has had since 1999…
But on the other hand - watching the program slowly dissolve from the inside out is going to be AWESOME, mostly if Bert ends up being a mediocre Head Coach in the Big Ten and we get to make a bowl game 4 of every 5 seasons (just 6 wins…please…that’s all I’m asking. Sprinkle in a division title here and there if I’m allowed to be greedy).
And I haven’t even covered the Naperville, Illinois pocket-vaping Natty Light chugging bastards that couldn’t get in to U of I or Wisconsin that chose Iowa as their safety school.