Iowa Football

Iowa's path to Big Ten West success not getting smoother

Hawkeyes' homestand with Minnesota and Illinois illustrates new obstacles

Things have brightened for Illinois football since this fourth-quarter Memorial Stadium scene of Nov. 17, 2018 when Iowa beat the Illini, 63-0, in Champaign, Ill. (The Gazette)
Things have brightened for Illinois football since this fourth-quarter Memorial Stadium scene of Nov. 17, 2018 when Iowa beat the Illini, 63-0, in Champaign, Ill. (The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — There’s a lot of good feeling in the Iowa football complex right now, and there should be.

You beat a top-10 team, you’ve done something. The Hawkeyes did something last Saturday with their 23-19 victory over formerly unbeaten Minnesota.

But this two-week stretch at Kinnick Stadium illustrates that things Iowa football can’t control have changed, and not to the Hawkeyes’ advantage.

First you had Minnesota, mediocre for so long. The Gophers have not only taken attention from Iowa and others in the Big Ten West, but are in a position to win their first division title. No matter how much the Hawkeyes and their fans may show disdain for P.J. Fleck, his program has broken through.

This week, Iowa’s guest is Illinois. Iowa is a two-touchdown favorite, and that seems about right. However, this isn’t the Illini that lost 63-0 to the Hawkeyes a year ago. It isn’t the program that hasn’t had a winning Big Ten record since 2007.

Hey, just a month ago Illinois was 2-4 overall with a game against then-No. 6 Wisconsin next. Then it rallied from a 23-14 fourth-quarter deficit for a stunning 24-23 win over the Badgers, got one-sided wins over Purdue and Rutgers, and came from 21 points behind for a 37-34 win at Michigan State.

That’s 6-4 Illinois coming to a stadium near you, Hawkeyes, a team with the same 4-3 Big Ten record as yours. That’s the team that everyone considered the unlikeliest in the West to make waves this season.

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“I’m not at all surprised by Illinois,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday. “I didn’t know when it was going to happen, but my sense was it was going to happen. It is happening now.”

Minnesota is a threat to win the West and Illinois clipped Wisconsin at home and Michigan State on the road. Northwestern won the West last year, and Purdue has changed its football image despite backsliding this season because of critical injuries.

Oh, Wisconsin still is Wisconsin. And what if Nebraska ever became something again?

Iowa had chances to add to its West title of 2015 last season and this. Those chances could be harder to come by in the future.

You don’t hear Ferentz’s salary mentioned as often lately, maybe because Purdue, Northwestern and Nebraska pay their coaches more, at least pre-bonuses.

Five years ago, Iowa opened its $55 million football facility. It was a game-changer, something several other West teams couldn’t equal. That recruiting edge didn’t last long. It’s been matched and perhaps more across most of the division.

Nebraska, trying desperately to rejoin college football’s higher ground, decided it had no choice but to announce it will build a $155 million football complex. NU Athletics Director Bill Moos said it will be the “best facility of its kind in the country.”

“Everybody has nice places now,” Ferentz said. “I don’t pay close attention — I can’t imagine anybody has got one much nicer (than Iowa’s). This is really — not that we tried to make this the Taj Mahal, but I think we really did it right and it’s first-class and it’s really functional. Now everybody has kind of got one of those, and it levels the field a little bit.”

This year, Illinois opened a $79 million, 107,650-square foot football performance center. It has a mini-golf course and barbershop. It also has a bowling alley in the players’ lounge.

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That’s fitting, since the Illini are going bowling football-wise this year for the first time since 2014.

What once were rhetorical questions here have become reality. What if Minnesota started winning in its major market? What if Illinois ever got competitive again in a state with four times more population than Iowa’s?

Northwestern built a $270 million athletics facility on the shore of Lake Michigan. Purdue went to the mat financially to try to keep coach Jeff Brohm from leaving for his Louisville alma mater last December, and prevailed.

And Wisconsin still is Wisconsin.

You can win at Iowa just as easily as almost everywhere else in the West, for sure. The rub is, some of those other places couldn’t say the same not too long ago.

Comments: (319) 368-8840; mike.hlas@thegazette.com

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