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We know lunacy has gone from being shunned to embraced in society, but we didn’t expect it to invade college football.
Things that just aren’t supposed to happen have happened. Like Oklahoma losing 55-24 at TCU Saturday, or Kansas being 5-0 and getting ready to host College GameDay this weekend.
Here’s another: Illinois isn’t supposed to clock Wisconsin 34-10 in Madison, and hold the fabled Badgers running game to 2 yards on the ground.
Wisconsin’s Braelon Allen came in to the Illinois game averaging 127 rushing yards. He carried eight times for a total of 2 yards.
Wisconsin’s long-fabled defense? Illinois’ Chase Brown ran 25 times for 129 yards for his seventh 100-yard day in his last eight games. Only Iowa held him in check in that time, 13 rushes for 42 yards at Kinnick Stadium last November in the Hawkeyes’ 33-23 win.
Illinois hadn’t won at Wisconsin since 2002. It hadn’t started a season 4-1 since 2015. It scored the game’s last 27 points in Madison, and sent the typically late-arriving UW students to atypically early exits.
After Michigan, the Big Ten game that had been most-circled on calendars of Iowa fans was Wisconsin at Kinnick on Nov. 12. That had the makings of a game that would determine the West Division champs. For reasons that seemed dubious to a few of us at the time, the Badgers were the overwhelming pick to reclaim the West throne.
Now, 0-2 Wisconsin is the only one of the seven West teams that isn’t 1-1 in conference play. Illinois, meanwhile, is 4-1 overall and about to welcome Iowa to Champaign Saturday night for a matchup that isn’t a foregone conclusion for the first time in a long time.
The Hawkeyes have won their last eight games against the Illini, all by more than one score. They were favored by at least 12 points in each of the last five meetings, and showed why each time.
But now this. Illinois was installed as a 3-point favorite Sunday by Circa Sports.
In Bret Bielema’s second year as their coach, the Illini are playing the kind of ball Wisconsin played when he was their leader. Brown is second in the nation in rushing and its offense averages a respectable 424.6 yards. Illinois is first in the nation in scoring defense and third in total defense.
The Illini have allowed an average of 4.3 points over the last three games. Wisconsin totaled 10 yards and zero first downs in the third quarter against them.
“Everybody always thinks, ‘It’s just Illinois.’ Eff that. We’re turning the tide now. … This isn't an irregularity,” said Illinois offensive lineman Alex Palczewski after the game.
So while it lacks the national luster of Saturday’s battle of unbeatens between TCU and Kansas (Lunacy!), Iowa-Illinois has some juice here in the Corn Belt.
“I would say right now, anything and everything anybody can do to make Memorial Stadium next Saturday be as loud as you can at 6:30,” Bielema said.
“Bring a couple friends with you. Let’s make Memorial Stadium what it should be.”
In Iowa’s last several visits to Champaign, Hawkeye fans have accounted for a considerable portion of the crowd and tickets have been easy to get on game day.
The thought of that 99-year-old warhorse being hostile to the Hawkeyes is hard to picture for those who have been to Iowa-Illinois games there.
In the meantime, the contrast between the Big Ten’s divisions is almost comical. The East-West format is sure to be scrapped before USC and UCLA start Big Ten play in 2024, and not a minute too soon.
You have Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State in the East, and no College Football Playoff committee members need concern themselves with in the West.
Until Purdue or Minnesota or anybody steps up and proves otherwise, it’s not unreasonable to say Iowa and Illinois are the two best teams in the Mild, Mild West.
That’s like being the two best street corners in a rough neighborhood. But right now, it sure beats being where Madison’s Monroe and Regent streets intersect in front of Camp Randall Stadium.
The Badgers are in disarray. The Hawkeyes have work to do this week to avoid the same situation.
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