Iowa Football

Iowa football's most-interesting 2019 games: No. 9 Illinois

Illini are 0-for-the century at Kinnick, were 0-for-60-minutes vs. Hawkeyes last year in Champaign

Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa (94) knocks the ball away from Illinois running back Ra'Von Bonner (21) last Nov. 17 at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Ill. Epenesa recovered the fumble and returned it 19 yards for a touchdown during the Hawkeyes' 63-0 win. (The Gazette)
Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa (94) knocks the ball away from Illinois running back Ra'Von Bonner (21) last Nov. 17 at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Ill. Epenesa recovered the fumble and returned it 19 yards for a touchdown during the Hawkeyes' 63-0 win. (The Gazette)

All the leaves will be brown and the sky will probably be gray when Illinois’ football team plays at Iowa the Saturday before Thanksgiving.

I’ll be California dreamin’, or at least dreamin’ of somewhere else to be. But the job demands you take the chaff with the wheat, and watching Illinois in football has long been chaff.

How I have it the ninth-most interesting game on the Hawkeyes’ schedule is only because I’m giving the Fighting Illini the benefit of the doubt that all the freshmen they’ve played in Lovie Smith’s first three years as their coach have gotten better as they’ve aged. A leap of faith, that is. So No. 9, this is. Somehow:

Illinois, Nov. 23, at Kinnick Stadium

Almost every conference has one of them and occasionally two. They are the programs that can’t get out of their own way, that change coaches every four years or so, that are designated victims. They are Oregon State. They are Kansas. They are Rutgers.

They are Illinois.

Iowa will seek its sixth-straight win over the Illini come Nov. 23. The Hawkeyes’ last loss to Illinois was in 2008. The last time the Illini won in Kinnick Stadium was 1999.

Of first-year students at Iowa last fall, 28 percent were Illinois residents. Come for the tuition price, stay for the pummeling of the Illini on the gridiron.

From a great distance, you would think Illinois would have the built-in advantage of being able to land a vast supply of high school talent from Chicagoland, keeping it competitive each year. Up close, you know Chicagoland yawns at the state school as its top preps travel hither and yon to pursue other opportunities.

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Iowa has had a few Chicagolanders of note this century. More than a few, actually. Matt Roth. Adam Gettis. Tony Moeaki. Jaleel Johnson. Ben and Nick Niemann. Louis Trinca-Pasat. Jordan Walsh. Mark Weisman. Ivory Kelly-Martin. Amani Jones. C.J. Fiedorowicz.

That’s just a sliver.

A laundry list of the Illini’s negative football numbers of the last decade would be a long one. Here are three of the lowlights:

1. They’re 29-102 in the Big Ten over the last 16 years.

2. Their last winning league record was in 2007, when they went to the Rose Bowl and got smashed by USC, 49-17.

3. Their last two bowl games were the Fight Hunger and the Heart of Dallas. The College Football Hall of Fame doesn’t have exhibits for either bowl.

Last year, Iowa beat Illinois in Champaign, 63-0. You don’t see 63-0 too often in Big Ten games if your name isn’t Rutgers.

That was the third time the Illini gave up that number last season. Penn State and Maryland also hung 63s on them, but at least Illinois scored against those two.

I know you Hawkeyes loved that bloodletting in Champaign, but as someone who was there to chronicle it, it was brutal. The announced attendance was 33,313. Yeah, right.

The day had lousy weather and a lousier atmosphere. I want competition every time out. I want something compelling.

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Granted, Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa did provide the you-don’t-see-this-every-Saturday story with a forced fumble, a recovery of that fumble, a return of that fumble for a touchdown, a quarterback sack, and a blocked punt all within a two-minute period. But the three-hour story was this: “Ewwww.”

Epenesa is from Illinois, by the way.

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