IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — The Iowa-Illinois football rivalry is nothing like it was decades ago.
The 18th-ranked Hawkeyes head into Saturday’s home game on a seven-game win streak in the series. Illinois’ last win came in 2008, and the teams didn’t play again until 2014 when they were put together in the Big Ten West Division.
Iowa has had two shutouts in the streak, including a 63-0 rout in Champaign in 2018. The last two games have been closer. The Hawkeyes won 19-10 in 2019, then rallied from an early 14-point deficit to win 35-21 last season.
And while Illinois leads the overall series 38-35-2, the Hawkeyes have won 12 of the last 13 meetings since 2003. The teams split 18 games in the 1980s and ’90s, and seven were decided by 10 points or less. One or both teams were ranked in nine of the games.
Illinois is in its first season under Bret Bielema, a nose guard for Iowa when the rivalry was at its pinnacle in the early 1990s. He also was on the Iowa coaching staff from 1994-2001.
Bielema made sure to stress this week that this game shouldn’t be about him; he has since tested positive for COVID-19, and he won’t be at the game. Assistant head coach George McDonald will run the team in Bielema’s absence.
“It’s been pointed out to me that we’ve lost seven straight,” Bielema said. “I don’t need to throw that in our players’ face; they’ve actually said it to me. I know what it means to these players, and it’s about everything other than the fact about me. I’m just the newest equation into this thing. It’s a nice little side piece. But it’s nothing what this story’s about.”
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Bielema has proved he knows how to win in the Big Ten. Bielema went 68-24 in seven seasons at Wisconsin, including 3-2 against the Hawkeyes.
“Their whole organization is really good,” Ferentz said.
Iowa (8-2, 5-2 Big Ten) is tied for the division lead with Wisconsin, although the Badgers hold the tiebreaker because of the 27-7 win over the Hawkeyes on Oct. 30. Illinois (4-6, 3-4), which has road wins over ranked teams Penn State and Minnesota, needs to win Saturday and at home against Northwestern on Nov. 27 to be bowl-eligible.
Bielema wasn’t interested in that discussion this week, or the emotions surrounding what was going to be his return to Iowa City.
“It’s an opportunity for us to play a Big Ten West opponent, a team that’s in contention for a Big Ten West title,” Bielema said. “For us to play a team we haven’t beaten in seven years, for us to play a team that’s going to be on our schedule, year in and year out, this is a measuring stick for us.”
Illini defensive coordinator Ryan Walters received a contract extension through 2024, with a compensation package that ranks him third in the Big Ten and into the top 10 nationally among defensive coordinators.
Walters’ base salary increases to $1.05 million in 2022 with $100,000 raises each of the following two seasons. He will also be eligible for annual retention incentives of at least $250,000 per season.
Illinois’ defense has made a 13.3-point turnaround from last season, the second-best nationally. The Illini have made a 17.3-point turnaround in Big Ten play.
Ferentz was asked Tuesday what the plan would be if he, like Bielema, would have to miss a game because of illness.