IOWA CITY, Iowa - Saturday should be a good time in Kinnick Stadium. It usually is fun, but this game could have been so much better if not for Covid.
First, Iowa will be honoring its seniors in what could be their final home contest. Unfortunately, the guy coaching the other team, who once went through Senior Day as a Hawkeye, is sidelined with the virus.
First-year Illinois coach Bret Bielema was preparing to return to his alma mater looking to pull off an upset. Then the school announced Tuesday that he had a breakthrough case.
"I'm disappointed that I will not be with our team this week when we travel to Iowa, but I'm grateful that I'm vaccinated and received the booster shot last week," Bielema said in a press release.
"Going back to last spring and this fall, I have a set protocol for anyone on our staff who may be removed due to COVID, including myself as a head coach. Our players and coaches have prepared for 10 games already this year and (Tuesday's) news will just be a continuation of that process."
Bielema is 3-2 against Iowa in his career, all matchups coming when he was leading Wisconsin from 2006-2012. His first assistant coaching gig came with the Hawkeyes and he worked under current Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz from 1999-2001.
Bielema took over in Champaign this season after a failed run at Arkansas ('13-17) and several years as an NFL assistant. The Illini (4-6 overall, 3-4 Big Ten) stumbled to a 2-6 mark last season, Lovie Smith's final campaign leading the program. Five of six setbacks this fall have been by one score.
"Being upfront and honest, like I tell our guys, I've known this day was coming, somewhat similar, but the same when we were going to play Wisconsin," Bielema said on Monday. "I don't want players or coaches to ever shy away from their past and their history. I've always said I've never met a successful man who isn't proud where he came from.
"That carries forward in this moment for me just as much as anything. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Kirk. He gave me a job. Phil Parker, the defensive coordinator, and I were as close as close gets when we were together."
Bielema is compartmentalizing that history and detaching it from the upcoming game.
"That doesn't have any effect on Saturday. Saturday is about this year's football team. It's about this year's team against this year's team at the University of Iowa. It's about the 11 on 11 each play on Saturday that matters," he said.
Illinois has won its last two road games, a nine-overtime affair at Penn State and a 14-6 victory at Minnesota two weeks ago. It enjoyed a bye this past weekend.
The Illini hang their hat on defense and running the football, which shouldn't be surprising with Bielema at the helm. In Big Ten games, they allow 17.6 points per game, good for third best in the conference, one spot ahead of the Hawkeyes (17.9).
Illinois' 21 sacks in league play are tied for third. It allows opponents to complete just 57.8 percent of their passes.
"It's a good, stout defense in Illinois," Iowa center Tyler Linderbaum said. "It's kind of a different front, a different look than we've seen all year. It's going to come down to our preparation, how we prepare this week. We have to get ready for them."
Offense is a different story. The Illini are scoring 14.6 points per game in the Big Ten, which ranks 12th. Their 288.4 yards per contest are 13th.
Illinois rushes for 171.4 yards per league game, which ties Michigan for 6th. Conversely, it's last in passing yards per game (117.0) and completion percentage (50.6 percent).
"It's a little different (than Minnesota)," Iowa linebacker Jestin Jacobs said. "It's a lot of outside schemes, outside zones. Like Minnesota, they like to bring in an extra tackle sometimes, an extra tackle two.
"So, it will be another tough, physical run game, and we're going to have to come to play again."
The quarterback situation has been unsettled in Champaign. Brandon Peters (55.5 completion percentage, 680 yards, four touchdowns, one interception) and Artur Sitkowski (50.0-704-6-2) have shared the job. Peters has been the guy when healthy, starting the last two games.
Illini running back Chase Brown ranks second in the Big Ten with 106.4 rushing yards per game. He's been supported by Josh McCray, who is averaging 54.1.
Outside linebacker Owen Carney Jr.'s 6.5 sacks put him in a fourth-place tie among conference defenders. He also has 7.5 tackles for loss.
Illinois Safety Kerby Joseph is tied for the league lead with four interceptions. Devon Witherspoon's eight passes broken up in as many contests are tied for fourth in the Big Ten.
Illinois punter Blake Hayes is a Ray Guy semifinalist like Iowa's Tory Taylor, also an Australian. The Illini senior is averaging 45.0 yards per attempt with 28 punts down inside the opponent's 20 yard line, 13 punts of 50-plus yards and 18 fair catches.
Kicker James McCourt is 11 of 16 on field goals for the Illini this fall. His longest field goal is from 53 yards.
Illinois will be looking for its first victory in Iowa City since '99.
"It doesn't matter what's happened in years past, it about this year's team," Bielema said. "Our guys love to play on the road. They have a mentality to them. I'm excited to see this group go to Iowa City and see what can happen."
TV ANNOUNCERS: Adam Alexander and Devin Gardner on FS1.
SERIES: Saturday will be the 77th meeting between Iowa and Illinois. Iowa trails the all-time series, 36-38-2, but the Hawkeyes have won 15 of the last 18 meetings, 12 of the last 13 and seven in a row.
Iowa is 19-18-2 against the Illini in games played in Iowa City, and have won the last six at home. Illinois’ last win at Kinnick Stadium was in '99 (40-24), Kirk Ferentz’s first year as Iowa’s head coach.
Illinois’ last win in the series was a 27-24 victory in Champaign in '08.
BETTING LINES: The game opened with Iowa as a 10.0-point favorite at Vegas Insiders (VI) on Sunday. That number moved to the Hawkeyes -12.0 by Monday morning. The total was at 38.5, holding steady with the open.
-Illinois is 4-0-1 Against The Spread (ATS) vs. teams with a winning record.
-Fighting Illini are 0-4 ATS in their last 4 games following a straight up win.
-Iowa is 7-2 ATS in its last 9 games following a straight up win.
-Hawkeyes are 5-2 ATS in their last 7 home games.
ILLINOIS PLAYERS TO WATCH
-Chase Brown, RB – The sophomore from Ontario is 13th in the nation and second in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game (106.4). He led the nation in yards after contact twice in a four-week span in October and is the only running back to lead the nation in yards after contact twice this season.
-Kerby Joseph, S – The playmaking junior from Orlando leads the nation in fumble recoveries (4), is tied for third in the nation in interceptions (3) and is the only player in the nation with 4+ interceptions and 3+ fumble recoveries. He is the No. 1-graded safety in the nation, according to PFF.
-Owen Carney, Jr., OLB – The junior from Miami has 6.5 sacks on the season, ranking fifth in the Big Ten in that statistic. Carney Jr. is ninth in Illini history in career sacks with 16.0 and has already surpassed his career high for sacks in a season (5.0, '20).
KEYS TO VICTORY
Illinois: Pressure the quarterback and convert in the red zone.
Iowa: Slow down the Illini running game and take care of the ball.
-With wins at Penn State (#7 AP) and at Minnesota (#20 CFP), the Illini are one of four teams to win two AP/CFP ranked road games this season (Boise State, Fresno State, Mississippi State). Iowa will be Illinois' 7th bowl-eligible opponent, tied for the sixth-most bowl opponents in the nation.
-Illinois' defense has made a 13.3-point improvement from last season (34.9 ppg to 21.6 ppg), the second-best improvement in the nation behind Michigan (18.4). The 13.3 ppg improvement is the program's best improvement since 1963 (26.0 ppg to 10.3 ppg = 15.7 ppg). Illinois has allowed 17.6 points in Big Ten games, third-best in the conference. That's an 11-spot jump from last year, when Illinois finished last with 34.9 points allowed per Big Ten game.
-Illinois is 9th in the nation in run blocking grade, according to PFF (84.0).
-Illinois is 12th in the nation in net punting (43.0). P Blake Hayes is one of 10 semifinalists for the Ray Guy Award. Illinois is 12th in the nation in kickoff return defense (15.0).
-Illinois RB Chase Brown has 145+-yard rushing games in two straight road games (at #7 Penn State, at #20 Minnesota), becoming the first Illini with two 145-yard rushing games on the road since '07 when Rashard Mendenhall had 214 at Indiana and 201 at Minnesota.
-Iowa leads the country in interceptions (19) and ranks third nationally in takeaways (24). The Hawkeyes have 83 interception since '17, more than any team in the country. Ten different Hawkeyes have at least one interception this season. Iowa is plus-17 in turnover margin in its eight wins and minus-six in its two losses.
-Iowa ranks third the Big Ten and seventh in the country in scoring defense (16.3). Iowa’s total defense (315.1) ranks fourth in the Big Ten and 12th in the country.
-Iowa DB Riley Moss and LB/DB Dave Belton tie for the conference lead with four interceptions. DB Matt Hankins ranks seventh with three interceptions. Iowa is the only team in the country with two players with four or more interceptions. All three players have recorded two interceptions in a single game this season.
-Hawkeye WR Charlie Jones leads the Big Ten averaging 10.4 yards on a league-high 26 punt returns. He has returned 19 kickoffs for an average of 22.9 yards per return, No. 4 in the Big Ten. Iowa has won the field position battle in each of its eight wins.
-Iowa P Tory Taylor ranks fourth in the Big Ten averaging 45.8 yards per punt. Taylor leads the Big Ten and ranks third nationally with 63 punts. He has 19 punts of 50 or more yards, including a career-long 69-yard punt at Iowa State in Week 2. Thirty of his punts have been downed inside the 20 this season. Taylor was recognized as a first-team midseason All-American by The Athletic and is a semifinalist for the Ray Guy Award.
Illinois – Psalm One
Iowa - Justin Cronin
HOWE I SEE IT: Another week, another game that shapes up as a defensive tussle. Welcome to the Big Ten West.
Bielema has done a nice job in his first season in Champaign. He's already transitioned the program into his style of football.
Illinois needs more horses. That said, the Illini already sit two games ahead of Nebraska and Northwestern in the division, and are just a game back of Purdue and Minnesota.
What looked like it might be a layup for Iowa before the season now requires the Hawkeyes to be on their game to claim victory. Fortunately, they've righted the ship after a two-game skid.
Iowa should receive the emotional bump in Kinnick Stadium on Senior Day. And it's the more talented team.
PREDICTION: IOWA 24, Illinois 10.
Rob Howe is in his 25th year covering University of Iowa Athletics. He's worked for the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Hawkeye Nation, Hawk Fanatic, Hawkeye Insider and more. Please follow @RobHoweHN on Twitter.