Bowl implications add to Iowa-Illinois rivalry
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Iowa and Illinois meet many of the requirements a rivalry demands. There's geography (bordering states), history (first meeting: 1899), recruiting residue (see: Jason Ford) and even a recent streak (Iowa has captured five straight meetings) to stoke the fire on both sides.
This year, another factor adds to the significance of Saturday's matchup at Memorial Stadium (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET).
Only one game separates the teams in the Big Ten standings. Both squads are inching toward bowl eligibility, and neither team has an easy route the rest of the way.
"You move into end of October, early November, a lot of things are riding on the outcome of the games," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "Certainly it's more enjoyable now because there is a little bit more significance than maybe earlier in the season.
Iowa comes in at 5-3, refreshed following a bye week and blowout wins against Indiana and Wisconsin. The Hawkeyes seem to have turned a corner behind a stingy defense and star running back Shonn Greene, but they recently have struggled in November games and still must face No. 3 Penn State and No. 17 Minnesota.
The situation might be more urgent in Champaign, where head coach Ron Zook once again called out his players after a loss to Wisconsin. Illinois, a preseason top 20 team coming off a Rose Bowl appearance, sits at 4-4 and has won consecutive games only once this season.
After Iowa, the Illini face three teams (Western Michigan, Ohio State and Northwestern) with a combined record of 19-6. Needing at least two and probably three wins to secure a bowl spot, Illinois must produce a strong performance Saturday afternoon.
"We're going to be defined by these next four games," linebacker Brit Miller said. "We put ourselves in that position. It's not what we'd hoped for, but it's where we're at. Playing these guys [Iowa] later in the season, it's always a lot of fun.
"They've got five wins, us having four, we'd love to even that up. It's kind of a playoff system where we're guaranteed games, but we have to win 'em if we're going to want that bowl bid."
Two of the Big Ten's top offensive weapons -- Greene and Illinois quarterback Juice Williams -- will put pressure on both defenses. Greene has carried Iowa's offense, eclipsing 100 rushing yards in all eight games and finding the end zone four times against Wisconsin on Oct. 18.
Though Miller is having a stellar season -- he leads the Big Ten in tackles (10.5 tackles per game), ranks third in tackles for loss (14) and ties for fifth in forced fumbles (2) -- Illinois' defensive front has struggled to contain the run. Illinois ranks 76th nationally in rush defense (152.4 yards per game), allowing 141 yards or more in five of its eight games.
A stronger effort will be needed to contain Greene.
"He has run over defenses all year long," Miller said. "I like the way he plays the game. He runs hard, and me being a middle linebacker, that's the only way to play the game. There's no other way. He embodies what I believe about football.
"He's a low-to-the-ground, tough runner. We've got to get excited to tackle a guy like that."
Iowa's secondary faces by far its toughest test of the season in Williams, who ranks eighth nationally in total offense (331 ypg) and 16th in pass efficiency (152.6 rating).
Illinois' downfield pass attack, headlined by Arrelious Benn, ranks 16th nationally. None of the Hawkeyes' previous eight opponents rank among the top 40 in passing.
"They can come out and take it 70, 80 yards and score right away," said Hawkeyes free safety Brett Greenwood, who sealed last year's upset win against Illinois by intercepting an Eddie McGee pass in the end zone with 1:12 left. "You've got Benn and just all their receivers. They're multiple threats, can stretch you out, the whole field out. It's going to be a tough game, just stopping their skill players and matching up."
Greenwood, a native of Bettendorf, Iowa, considers Iowa State the Hawkeyes' biggest rival, though he admits, "Once it gets to this game, it's pretty heated."
Zook has never beaten Ferentz since coming to Illinois, and only one of the Illini losses during the current losing streak came by fewer than 10 points.
"If it's a rivalry, then it has to be two good teams competing for something," Miller said. "There was a time when we were kind of making that turnaround where we weren't really competing for much but pride, while they were going to bowl games and stuff. Now that we're both trying to get that elusive bowl bid, it adds to it and it creates a better atmosphere."
Zook, who for the second time this season said personnel changes are on the way, doesn't want his players focusing on anything but themselves.
"Any time we start thinking about the bowls, thinking about the rivalry, thinking about all those other things, it takes away from what we have to do," he said. "We've got to get our guys playing the way they're capable of playing for 60 minutes."
Miller takes that responsibility to heart. He considers this his team, and he has made the necessary improvement in his fourth season as a starter.
The next step is to make those around him better.
"You wish you could put the mind of a senior into a freshman's body," he said. "If you step back and look at what you really have left, it's fleeting, for sure. I'm trying to spread that knowledge onto these younger kids because just playing here at Illinois is enough, and with this rivalry, it makes it even better."