IOWA CITY, Iowa - There was a time when the Iowa-Illinois football game came with some level of excitement. Many of the players in this year's matchup were born too recently to remember.
The "border rivals" meet for the 76th time on Saturday (2:30 p.m. CT, FS1) in Champaign. The Illini will be attempting to break a six-game skid in the series and win for just the second time in the last 13 meetings.
Illinois is a veteran team that should feel confident it can end its drought against the Hawkeyes after playing them close a year ago before falling, 19-10. It matches up better physically than it did when it was steamrolled, 63-0, two years ago at Memorial Stadium.
"Iowa is a great team. We know we have got to come to play because they're going to come to play every time," Illinois defensive back Tony Adams said.
Both teams lean on the running game. The Illini lead the Big Ten in rushing yards (1,112) and rank second in rushing yards per game (222.4), behind only Ohio State (233.3). Iowa is second in rushing yards (1,037).
"I like Iowa's style of play, downhill, they're coming right at you," Adams said. "They're not going to do nothing too crazy. I believe their philosophy is I'm more of a man than you are. So we're going to see this week. We're going to see."
After losing their first two games by a combined five points, the Hawkeyes have won four in a row. They blew out three opponents before pulling out a 26-20 victory against Nebraska last Friday.
They're built on a strong defense. They're allowing just 16.7 points and 109.3 rushing yards per game, both numbers the third fewest in the Big Ten. The Illini average 5.1 yards per carry, second in the conference, while Iowa holds opponents to 2.8 yards per rush, the best in the league.
"They are who they are. They know what they're doing. They're extremely well coached. They play extremely hard. They're strong. They're physical," Illinois offensive coordinator Rod Smith said.
"They have a system, they run it and they're damn good at it. They're going to make you out-execute them. That's what it comes down to. You're going to have to out-execute with your system against their system head to head."
Illinois features a veteran offensive line, a pair of productive running backs and one of the league's top receivers. Senior quarterback Brandon Peters won't be intimidated by the Hawkeyes.
Meanwhile, Iowa's first-year starter behind center, Spencer Petras, is searching for consistency. The Illini will likely bring pressure but also mix up looks with head coach Lovie Smith directing the defense.
Petras' 56.3 percent completion percentage ranks him second to last among qualified Big Ten quarterbacks behind only Michigan State's Rocky Lombardi (54.1). Petras' 107.7 quarterback efficiency rating is the worst in the league.
The Illini are coached to strip the ball as evidenced by their six fumble recoveries. Their 16 fumble recoveries last season were five more than anybody else in the conference and they led the Big Ten in turnover margin (+10).
It's Senior Day in Champaign. The Illini will be looking to clear a hurdle that's tripped them up in the past.
"Our upperclassmen have not beaten Iowa since I've been here. That has to give you added motivation, absolutely," Smith said.
"It doesn't take much for us to get fired up about playing the Hawkeyes."
TV ANNOUNCERS: TBD on FS1.
SERIES: Saturday will be the 76th meeting between Iowa and Illinois. Iowa trails the all-time series, 35-38-2, but the Hawkeyes have won 14 of the last 17 meetings, 11 of the last 12, and six in a row.
Iowa is 15-20 all-time in games played in Champaign, but has won its last three visits, including a 63-0 win in 2018, its largest margin of victory in the series and the largest of the Ferentz era (272 games). Illinois’ last win in the series was a 27-24 victory in Champaign in 2008.
BETTING LINES: The game opened with Iowa as a 12.0-point favorite at Vegas Insiders. Iowa moved to being a X-point favorite at Elite Sports Book in Riverside as of Tuesday morning. The total was at 52.5.
-Hawkeyes are 3-1-1 Against The Spread in their last 5 conference games.
-Under is 11-4 in Hawkeyes last 15 conference games.
-Fighting Illini are 4-1 ATS vs. a team with a winning record.
-Road team is 5-1 ATS in the last 6 meetings in this series.
ILLINOIS PLAYERS TO WATCH
-Brandon Peters, QB – The former Michigan signal caller returned to the field two weeks ago in a dominating win at Nebraska after spending 21 days in COVID-19 quarantine. Considered a pro-style quarterback, Peters can do damage with his legs. He's averaging 7.4 yards per carry this season and gained 76 yards on 10 attempts last year against the Hawkeyes. He owns a 122.3 QB rating this season.
–Chase Brown/Mike Epstein, RBs – Illinois presents a productive one-two punch in the backfield like Iowa. Brown and Epstein each exceeded 100 yards on the ground at Nebraska, and they're both averaging at least 5.9 yards per carry. They're not involved much in the passing game with just five combined receptions this season.
-Josh Imatorbhebhe, WR – One of the conference's top receivers, the Georgia product's numbers are down due in large part to the team starting four different quarterbacks through five games. He still has caught 15 passes for 215 yards and two touchdowns.
KEYS TO VICTORY
Illinois: The Illini need to be able to run the ball successfully and limit turnovers. It also wouldn't hurt to hit on a few deep shots, which Iowa is stingy about allowing.
Iowa: The Hawkeyes need to vary tendencies and keep Illinois off balance, something they didn't do against it last year. They were too predictable in the first half last week as well.
-Illinois senior LB Jake Hansen is the only 2019 Butkus Award semifinalist that returned to college football in 2020. He has been involved in 14 takeaways in the last two seasons, the most of any player in the nation.
-Illinois' Kendrick Green is the highest rated guard in the Big Ten and No. 4 in the nation by PFF (min. 200 snaps). Green is the No. 15 graded offensive lineman in the nation.
-Illinois has more seniors on the 2020 roster (25) than 2018 and 2019 combined (21).
-Illinois was missing 14 potential contributors for the Purdue game and 15 potential contributors for the Minnesota game due to a combination of COVID-19 positives, contact tracing, and injuries.
-Illinois has started an all-Illinois hometown offensive line every game this season.
-Iowa has won its last four games, outscoring its opponents 151-55 and averaging 37.8 points per game during the winning streak. The Hawkeyes points per game during their four-game winning streak is the most over a four-game stretch since 2002, when they scored 161 points (40.1 ppg) in wins against Michigan (34-22), Wisconsin (20-3), Northwestern 62-10) and Minnesota (45-21).
-Iowa ranks second in the Big Ten with 16 rushing touchdowns: RB Mekhi Sargent (7), Goodson (6), QB Spencer Petras (2), WR Nico Ragaini (1). The Hawkeyes have scored 80-percent of their offensive touchdowns (16/20) on the ground.
-RB Mekhi Sargent ranks second in the Big Ten with 6.2 yards per carry, and third in the conference with seven rushing touchdowns. Sargent has 20 career rushing touchdowns, 11th most in school history.
-The Hawkeyes rank third in the Big Ten with 10 interceptions (Indiana 16; Northwestern 11). Iowa has 63 interceptions since 2017, the most by any team in the country.
-Junior DT Daviyon Nixon leads an Iowa defensive front that includes three players ranked in the top five in tackles for loss. Nixon leads the Big Ten with 5.0 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss. DE Chauncey Golston ranks fourth with 7.0 tackles, for loss, and DE Zach VanValkenburg is tied for fifth in the conference with 6.5 tackles for loss. Iowa ranks No. 3 in the conference in scoring defense (16.7), rush defense (109.3) and total defense (322.8). The Hawkeyes are ranked fourth in pass defense (213.5)
Illinois – Dan Fogelberg
Iowa – James Romig
HOWE I SEE IT: While people outside the programs may not be real hyped up for this game, Illinois will be very motivated. Iowa is at a place where the Illini would like to be.
The Hawkeyes rolled Illinois for three years in a row before we got a tight game last season at Kinnick Stadium. The Illini finally stood up to Iowa's running game, holding it to 79 rushing yards and 2.5 per carry.
Nebraska stacked the box last week and dared Petras to beat it, a sound plan against the Hawkeye ground attack. I would expect Illinois to employ the same strategy.
The fear here is that Iowa rolls out a conservative game plan thinking it will top the Illini on talent and physicality alone. That would be a mistake.
I think the Hawkeyes are better than Illinois. They'll prove it.
PREDICTION: IOWA 23, Illinois 16
Rob Howe has covered Iowa Hawkeye sports for 24 years and began working at HawkeyeNation.com in 2003. Please follow @HawkeyeNation on Twitter and @RobHoweHN