After an enthralling, inexplicable win over Indiana last week the Illinois Fighting Illini enter Saturday one victory away from bowl eligibility — and still in contention to win the laughable Big Ten West. In order to clinch the former and stay alive for the latter, Illinois needs to take down the rival Iowa Hawkeyes at Kinnick Stadium.
On the eve this divisional showdown in Iowa City, we chatted with Jonah Parker from SB Nation’s Iowa site, Black Heart Gold Pants.
TCR: I’ve watched Big Ten football my entire life and Iowa has mastered the art of “winning ugly.” It’s hilarious, dull and aggravating at the same time. Can you explain how this seems to work for them and ONLY them, specifically as it pertains to this season, with possibly the worst offense in the country?
BHGP: I think a big part of why this seems to only work at Iowa is the fact that Kirk Ferentz seems to want to do it. Most coaches are eager to score points in an attempt to win games, but we’ve reached a point where it almost seems like sport to Ferentz to see just how much he can thumb his nose at the prospect of needing to score more to win.
Iowa has had good to great defense for the entirety of his 24 years in town and over the last decade or so it’s been much closer to great than good. With that, he seems to have settled into the mindset that the only way to lose is to have loads of variance from the offense, namely turnovers. So we’ve seen a steady decline in production there with a more and more conservative approach.
For whatever reason, he’s seemed to ignore the fact that the conservative approach doesn’t just end with fewer points, but it’s also killed one of the key things his “complementary football” style is built upon: time of possession. As opposing defenses concentrate more and more on the run game and the offensive creativity in the passing game diminishes, we’ve seen an uptick in 3-and-outs (last week the exception) and a steady decline in ToP.
If we don’t see that change, it’s hard to envision this approach continuing to work the way it has the last several years.
TCR: Kaleb Brown had somewhat of a breakout game versus Rutgers. He has the kind of playmaking potential that Iowa has typically lacked at wide receiver. What stands out to you?
BHGP: Brown is an interesting case study for Hawkeye fans. Given everything I said in response to your first question, it’s not hard to see why Iowa has struggled recruiting high level talent at wide receiver. But this season promised meaningful playing time to any incoming WR as Cade McNamara was selling a revamped offense. Injuries have totally derailed those promises, but the playing time has still been there.
Despite the available PT, Ohio State transfer Kaleb Brown was missing in action for essentially the first eight weeks of the season. While we saw McNamara’s first pass as a Hawkeye go 36 yards to the house to fellow transfer WR Seth Anderson, Brown really didn’t see the field much at all the first half of the season. When McNamara went down, we did catch some glimpses of Brown but candidly he struggled with drops as Deacon Hill showed much less touch than the former starter.
The last two weeks, however, it seems as though the light bulb has gone on for Brown and it’s been desperately needed. He caught a 23-yard strike from Hill to set up the game-winning FG over Northwestern two weeks ago and then grabbed three catches for 27 yards and his first career TD last week. It seems like both his confidence and offense coordinator Brian Ferentz’s trust have grown based on that grab vs. NW and we saw his role expanded meaningfully last week.
At 5’11”, he isn’t a huge guy, but he has more speed than anyone else in the WR room and is built like a RB with the ability to go up and get contested catches and break tackles. Both are desperately needed in this reeling offense.
TCR: Much has been made of AD Beth Goetz’ decision to announce mid-season that Brian Ferentz would not return as offensive coordinator. Do you see this as a sign that the end may be near for Kirk Ferentz, as well?
BHGP: It’s no secret that Kirk was upset by the timing of the announcement. The general consensus in Iowa is the elder Ferentz wasn’t necessarily caught off guard by the decision to fire his son and frankly, Brian was likely to leave after the season anyway (he was rumored to be headed to the NFL a season ago). But announcing it mid-season was something Kirk didn’t agree with and goes against his philosophy on handling coaching change (in 24 years, we’ve never seen a coach terminated mid-season).
But while he was clearly frustrated by it, and he has been incredibly emotional post-game since the decision, I don’t think this is the end for Kirk. Fans tend to forget just how differently you have to be wired to be a power five school head coach. Doing it for two and a half decades means you likely forget how to live without it. It’s just impossible to envision a guy going from spending every waking hour focusing on teaching kids how to play football and then all of a sudden pivoting to some hobby you’ve literally never had time for in your life. I suspect we have 5+ more years of KF at the helm, for better or worse.
TCR: Teams like Iowa & Illinois try to play very similar styles of football. Do you think that philosophy can continue to be successful in the “new” Big Ten, with fast-paced offenses like Oregon, Washington, USC & UCLA entering the league?
BHGP: I’m probably an outlier within the fanbase, where I think the frustration of just how bad the offense has been the last three seasons is clouding judgement a bit, but I do think this style can be successful. There’s no other way to put it, but a team like Iowa can’t have the talent gap that’s inherent with being here geographically and expect to be successful scoring sub-20 points per game going forward.
But Kirk Ferentz has built the program around the idea that the way you close that talent gap is controlling the clock with a strong running game, shortening possessions, being more disciplined than opponents and out-executing. That approach has helped the Hawkeyes hang with more talented teams for more than two decades and I don’t think that changes with conference expansion.
If anything, I think Iowa leans into that approach and it may be the newcomers who need to adapt. It’s been a few years ago now, but Hawkeye fans surely recall the last time Iowa faced off with a more talented, high-powered USC offense. It was one of the best offensive performances we’ve seen from OC Brian Ferentz and complete domination. As much as the Big Ten West struggles to score points, the current Pac-12 struggles to keep teams from scoring points.
TCR: What were you doing on November 6, 1999 (the last time Illinois won at Kinnick)?
BHGP: Unlike all the players headed to Kinnick on Saturday, I was, in fact, born. However, I have no clue where a 12-year-old me was that fall day. Given the state of the program at the time, I don’t have a lot of memories of fall Saturdays in the late 90s.
I’m just hoping the Hawkeyes can get things going again to keep the home streak alive. I’ve got a 9-year-old who has had a lot of questions the last two years as he’s experiencing losses to rivals he hadn’t his entire life.
TCR: As for this game, what’s your prediction? First team to score seven wins?
BHGP: I’m so torn on this one. Any other week, I would say yeah, first team to 10 is going to win. But I could see this one going a couple different ways, especially after what I saw from both teams a week ago. I suspect the offensive output for Iowa was an aberration, but the Illinois defense did not look like I remember from a year ago and that opens things up a bit more than I would’ve thought.
Beyond that, the news of Cooper DeJean’s absence opens up Iowa’s defense a bit. The Hawkeyes haven’t been great at getting to the QB this year and are incredibly thin in the secondary with backup CB T.J. Hall also likely out. I expect to see the Illini take some shots which could either put Iowa in a tough spot giving up points or could end in more turnovers than we’ve seen this year.
Ultimately, I think we get something in between. I think Iowa comes out sleepwalking and lets Illinois get on the board early. The offense is the offense, but it does enough to get a few points of their own and then the defense wakes up and sucks the Illini into the black hole before landing a knockout punch late.
Iowa 17, Illinois 13
Smart man picking the under. Many thanks to Jonah for talking Hawkeyes with us. You can check out our Q&A with Black Heart Gold Pants HERE.