Lovie Smith Illinois

Illinois coach Lovie Smith during his team's game at Kinnick Stadium in 2019. 

IOWA CITY, Iowa – This has been anything but a traditional Big Ten football season. No non-conference games. Short preparation weeks. And canceled league games.

Now, Iowa travels to Illinois Saturday for a 2:30 p.m. game with another unexpected twist. Instead of hosting No. 4 Ohio State last week, the Illini had an unplanned week off. The game was canceled because of COVID-19 concerns in the Buckeye camp.

So instead of going helmet-to-helmet with one of the best teams in the nation, the Illini had a week to heal and rest. That’s not always a recipe for success. Illinois is 1-4 under Coach Lovie Smith in games after a bye week.

Smith’s team is 2-3 this season, but has won their last two. The Illini won at Rutgers, 23-20, and at Nebraska, 41-19. Illinois is winless at home so far, dropping decisions to Purdue, 31-24, and Minnesota, 41-14.

This has been a season of streaks for the Hawkeyes, in more ways than one. Iowa has won four straight games this season after starting 0-2. 

That includes a sixth straight victory over Minnesota, and snapping a six-game losing streak to Penn State. The Black Friday victory against Nebraska was also the sixth straight in that series, and a victory Saturday at Memorial Stadium would be a sixth straight over the Illini.

Kirk Ferentz has coached his Iowa teams to 101 Big Ten victories. Eleven of those have come against Illinois. His .785 career winning percentage against Red Grange’s alma mater is his highest against a Big Ten foe with the exception of Rutgers (2-0). 

A look at Big Ten rushing and passing statistics would appear to give Iowa an edge in this game. Those statistics don’t measure a team’s emotional state heading into a game, or turnovers. 

The Illini have a penchant for creating turnovers. They turned Nebraska over five times and take a plus six turnover margin into the game.  Iowa is at plus eight.

One thing to keep an eye on is the Illinois running game against Iowa’s rush defense. The Illini are second in the Big Ten in rushing at 222.4 yards per game. Iowa ranks third in rush defense, yielding 109.3 yards a game.

In its last two games, Illinois has piled up 338 yards in 59 carries against Rutgers and 285 yards in 52 carries against Nebraska, while having two players crack the 100-yard mark in both games.

Isaiah Williams, one of three quarterbacks to start for Illinois this season, had 192 yards in 31 carries against Rutgers. Chase Brown gained 131 yards in 17 carries. Brown added 110 yards in 26 carries against Nebraska. Mike Epstein added 113 yards in 13 carries.

The development of Iowa’s defensive line and linebackers has been one of the best stories of 2020.

Junior Daviyon Nixon and senior Chauncey Golston have had outstanding seasons. Golston has followed the path of many outstanding Hawkeyes before him, lightly recruited by Power Five schools but staying the course and becoming a Big Ten player.

 Golston was listed at 6-5 and 227 pounds as an incoming freshman. He’s 270 pounds now. 

Golston’s sack and forced fumble against Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez, scooped up by turnover magnet Zach VanValkenberg, silenced the Cornhuskers’ comeback attempt in Saturday’s final minutes.

Ferentz said Golston “really embodies to me what an Iowa football player is. He’s under-recruited, undersized when he came out. He had the height, not the girth. He’s done his work here. He’s an absolute delight any time you’re in a room with him. The guy just has a really positive energy. “

Energy oozes from Nixon, too. He has five sacks and 11.5 tackles for a loss as well as his 71-yard interception and score at Penn State. Golston has four sacks and seven tackles for a loss. VanValkenberg  has 3.5 sacks and 6.5 tackles for a loss and four fumble recoveries.

Senior linebacker Nick Niemann leads the team with 61 tackles, and was about Iowa’s only experienced player at that position when the season started because of transfers and opt-outs. But sophomores Seth Benson, who missed the first game, and freshman Jack Campbell, who missed the first three, have solidified that position.

They’ll all be challenged this week against the Illinois run game. Iowa has held Michigan State and Penn State under 100 yards, and no team has rushed for more than 145 yards this season. The only player to crack 100 yards against the Hawkeyes in the last five games is Minnesota’s Mohamed Ibrahim (33 carries, 144 yards).

Illinois comes into the game 11th in rushing defense, yielding 194.6 yards a game. Iowa is sixth, averaging 172.8 yards. It won’t be a surprise if the Illini stack the box, like Nebraska did, and force quarterback Spencer Petras to throw the ball. Petras ranks 12th in passing, at 107.7 yards per game.  Illinois is 10th in pass defense, at 253.6 yards a game, so Petras should have opportunities to move the ball with his arm.