Iowa Football

Iowa-Illinois football rivalry: No epics, no trophy, no sellout

Not every border battle is the stuff of lore

Iowa running back Ivory Kelly-Martin (21) pulls in a touchdown pass behind Illinois linebacker Jimmy Marchese (41) during the Hawkeyes' 45-16 win on 10.7.17 at Kinnick Stadium. (The Gazette)
Iowa running back Ivory Kelly-Martin (21) pulls in a touchdown pass behind Illinois linebacker Jimmy Marchese (41) during the Hawkeyes' 45-16 win on 10.7.17 at Kinnick Stadium. (The Gazette)

Some things just don’t click.

Maybe there’s a neighbor or relative you never speak to for some reason you can’t define. Maybe there’s a different route you could take to work that wouldn’t add time to your travel, but you simply don’t want to go that way. Maybe you watch a few episodes of a TV show and give up on it because it hasn’t grabbed you and you doubt it ever will.

So it is in Iowa for the Illinois-Iowa football rivalry. It doesn’t stir souls, and never really has.

You might think Saturday would be different. The Hawkeyes are coming off a big win over Minnesota, and feelings about them are as warm around here as at any time this season.

Then you have the Illini, foot wipes for the last several seasons. They have suddenly declared themselves competent at football with four consecutive victories and a 6-4 record. They beat Wisconsin, for crying out loud.

But no. On Tuesday, Iowa announced it had over 10,000 tickets remaining for this contest. How many times in the last 40 years has that happened for a Big Ten game at Kinnick Stadium?

It takes two to tango in sports, no matter the geography. For a long time, Illinois has not been good at the tango, er, football. It was shut out two of the last three times it played the Hawkeyes, and last year’s 63-0 game in Champaign was the worst beating absorbed in the 74-game history of the rivalry.

Which, by the way, Illinois leads 38-34-2. However, Red Grange galloped off to ghosthood long ago. The 21st Century Illini have performed before many more empty seats in their Memorial Stadium than those that will go unused at Kinnick Saturday.

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What great games do you remember between the Hawkeyes and Illini? Not great games for Iowa, like last year’s bloodletting. I’m talking back-and-forth, thrilling football battles.

The 2015 game wasn’t bad, when the Hawkeyes won 29-20 in Iowa City to improve to 6-0. Iowa didn’t salt it away until late in the game. The Hawkeyes never trailed in the second half, though, and it was a long way from an epic.

Maybe you’d add Iowa’s 10-6 win over No. 18 Illinois in 2007. Beyond that, you might draw blanks. I sure do. I remember the coffee shop in Mahomet, the motel in Rantoul and the now-closed OTB in Danville more than any football I’ve covered in Champaign. The game the Hawkeyes played against Minnesota last week was more compelling than any Illinois-Iowa meeting of the last quarter-century.

If anything, gaps in the Illinois-Iowa series are the defining stories of their rivalry. They didn’t play each other from 1953 until 1967 because of an ugly incident between Iowa fans and Illinois players after the 1952 game in Iowa City. That was kind of weird.

Because of the Big Ten’s rotating schedule and then the two teams being placed in opposite divisions, the Illini and Hawkeyes didn’t meet between 2008 and 2014. That was kind of weird, too.

There’s not even a traveling trophy in the Illinois-Iowa series, and the Hawkeyes seem to have one of those for just about everyone who has passed through Coralville on I-80.

Maybe there’s too much Illinois within the University of Iowa for this thing to have the feel of the Hawkeyes’ rivalries with other schools from border states. It’s a “We have seen the enemy and they are us” deal.

Meaning, the Hawkeyes have almost two dozen Illinois natives on their football roster. In 2017, over 6,000 UI students were from Illinois. For the Iowa student body to root too hard against the Illini would almost be self-loathing, and you can do that without buying tickets and sitting in the cold for three hours.

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What this series needs is exactly what Iowa doesn’t want, a well-played game by the Illini. Until then, tickets are available online in the $30 range.

Just be glad there aren’t 20,000 unsold tickets instead of 10,000, or I’d haul out this tired old joke:

Me to the Iowa ticket office: What time is Saturday’s game?

Ticket office to me: What time can you get here?

But I won’t do that. That would be wrong.

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

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