Iowa Football

Iowa football: 5 Things to know about Illinois

Keep an eye on Reggie Corbin

Illinois Fighting head coach Lovie Smith looks on during the first half against the Nebraska Cornhuskers at Memorial Stadium. (USA Today Sports)
Illinois Fighting head coach Lovie Smith looks on during the first half against the Nebraska Cornhuskers at Memorial Stadium. (USA Today Sports)

What’s wrong with the Hawkeyes?

That’s the biggest question anyone associated with the Iowa football program — from former current/former players to the media covering the team — get these days after a seemingly outstanding season is circling the drain on the heels of three straight losses.

Let’s take a break from that today and focus on Illinois (4-6, 2-5), which entertains the Hawkeyes (6-4, 3-4) on Saturday at Memorial Stadium. Kickoff is set for 2:30 p.m. (BTN).

Here are 5 Things about the Illini and Saturday’s game:

1. Meet Reggie Corbin

The Hawkeyes had little success last week stopping Northwestern’s run game, allowing 4 yards per carry and 184 total yards. And that was against a guy (Isaiah Bowser) who is averaging 69.3 yards per game.

Now comes the Illini with the second best running game in the Big Ten — that ranks eighth nationally at 262.8 yards per game — led by junior Reggie Corbin.

You might want to get to know Corbin.

A 5-foot-10, 200-pounder from Upper Marlboro, Md., Corbin was a three-star recruit out of Gonzaga College High School. He was ranked the No. 1 running back in the Washington, D.C., area and the No. 9 prospect overall. He also was a two-time all-conference pick, but his prep numbers weren’t real flashy — 915 rushing yards as a senior after gaining 1,103 as a junior.

He made his Illinois debut in 2016 after a redshirt year and rushed for 523 yards, averaging 6.08 per carry. An all-Big Ten academic pick as a sophomore, he battled injuries and had just 78 rushing yards on 18 carries.

This year, he’s been nothing short of outstanding.

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Corbin has rushed for 1,011 yards, averaging 8.9 yards per carry, and has nine touchdowns. He rushed for 137 yards at Rutgers, 100 at Wisconsin (on nine carries) and 155 at Maryland. He went off on Minnesota, rushing for 213 yards on just 13 carries, scoring twice on runs of more than 70 yards.

“Reggie plays like that every game,” Illinois Coach Lovie Smith said after the 55-31 win over the Gophers. “Week in and week out, he just plays football.”

Apparently, he also plays rugby. He led his high school team to a national title in 2015.

2. Loving Lovie?

Illinois took a “major step in elevating the Fighting Illini program" when it hired Lovie Smith in March, 2016.

Did it?

It’s probably too early to tell, but Smith’s first two Illini teams posted 3-9 and 2-10 records. At 4-6 this year, he’s ahead of that pace. So maybe things are going in the right direction in Champaign.

Smith probably is best known for his NFL coaching career, leading Chicago for nine seasons and taking the Bears to two NFC Championship Games and Super Bowl XLI in 2007. He had an 81-63 record. He was head coach in Tampa Bay in 2014 and ’15, going 8-14.

Smith’s first coaching gig was at his high school in Big Sandy, Texas, where he was an all-state defensive end and linebacker. After two seasons, he made his way to the college ranks and coached at Wisconsin, Arizona State, Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio State before moving to the NFL.

3. History lesson

To say the Illini have a rich football history would be an understatement.

Not many programs can claim five national titles on their resume, but Illinois can.

The program also owns 15 Big Ten titles, the first in 1910 with Arthur Hall as the coach and the last in 2001 under Ron Turner. The Illini won seven league titles under Bob Zuppke, from 1914 through 1928. Ray Eliot led Illinois to three titles in 1946, ’51 and ’53.

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Zuppke also coached Illinois to four of its five national titles — in 1914, ’19, ’23 and ’27.

Zuppke coached the team for 29 seasons, starting in 1913. During his tenure, Illinois’ attendance jumped from 4,500 to 60,000. He retired following a 2-6 campaign in 1941, leaving a legacy that included 131 wins against 81 losses and 12 ties.

He’s been credited with many innovations, including the huddle and flea flicker. The field at Memorial Stadium is named in his honor.

This also is the school that produced Harold “Red” Grange and Dick Butkus, among others. Grange, a three-time All-American known as the “Galloping Ghost,” once scored four touchdowns in 12 minutes against Michigan. Butkus was a two-time All-American and one of the most feared linebackers to ever play the game, along with another Illini great Ray Nitschke.

George Halas, founder of the Chicago Bears and legendary coach, also graduated from Illinois.

4. The series

The Hawkeyes trail the Illini in all games, 38-33-2, but have won nine of the last 10.

Iowa hasn’t lost to Illinois this decade, winning by an average margin of 33 to 12.5 and is 9-2 in the series this century, averaging 22.4 points to the Illini’s 14.4.

But Illinois once dominated this series. The Illini won 12 straight, starting in 1942 and ending in 1968, when the Hawkeyes went on a three-game winning streak.

The two teams didn’t meet after the 1952 game until 1967. A series of brawls broke out in the ’52 contest — a 33-13 Illini win — and Iowa fans reportedly threw apple cores at the officials at one point. The series was suspended.

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The first game in the series was played in 1899, a 58-0 Iowa win. Illinois won the next two, including an 80-0 shellacking in 1902.

5. Name game

Speaking of Butkus, there still is a Butkus associated with the Illinois program.

Luke Butkus, the nephew of the former NFL great, is the offensive line coach for his alma mater. He started his coaching career at Oregon and also coached in the NFL (Bears, Seahawks and Jaguars). His youngest son is named Bear.

Smith’s youngest son, Miles, is on the Illini staff as defensive backs coach.

l Comments: (319) 368-8696; jr.ogden@thegazette.com

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