Illinois coach John Mackovic was standing next to a projector last Friday afternoon in Champaign, giving his troops a slide show on the eve of their meeting with Iowa. The game would go a long way toward determining which of the two teams would play in the Rose Bowl. Immediately, Mackovic made his key point: "Football in the Big Ten starts with defense."
He sounded positively gleeful. After all, the week before, the Illini had held Wisconsin to 140 yards of offense, an average of just 1.89 yards per play. "[The Hawkeyes] have run pretty effectively, but that doesn't mean they'll run up and down the field on us," Mackovic continued. "What's fun is we get to see who's best. They have the Number 1-rated offense in the conference, and we're Number 1 in defense. Who's gonna come out on top?"
Mackovic looked smug, like a college student who had been given the test answers in advance. But what about stopping 255-pound senior Iowa tailback Nick Bell? Mackovic was dismissive: "Our strategy is we're gonna tackle him."
Nobody asked him how. Somebody should have, because 24 hours later Mackovic looked stricken following his team's 54-28 loss to Bell and the rest of the Hawkeyes. Bell had run over, through, past and around the Illinois defenders—six of whom were all-conference last year—and made them look like gnats trying to fell an elephant. He ended up with 168 yards on 22 carries for a whopping average of 7.6 yards per try. He also scored two touchdowns.
November 12, 1990
The Hawkeyes, who are now 7-1 overall and 5-0 in conference play, leaving the Illini at 6-2 and 4-1, excelled in every area. Indeed, someone asked whether they had turned in a virtually perfect performance. Bell thought not. "If you don't score a touchdown on every play, there's a flaw," he said. Iowa didn't score on every play; it only seemed that way.
The scope of what the Hawkeyes did to the Illini, who entered the game ranked fifth in the AP poll, is head-spinning. Illinois had given up just one touchdown to its opponents in their last 49 possessions; on Saturday, Iowa got TDs on its first five possessions. Only twice all year had a team passed for a TD against the Illini; on Saturday, the Hawkeyes threw for four. Said Mackovic, "They really didn't give us much of a chance to get started."
When the scoreboard finally stopped blinking, the strutting Illinois defense, which had limited opponents to 279.7 yards per game, had surrendered a stunning 540. Oddly, before the game the Illini were not worried about Bell. They thought him a first-rate back, but he is such a slow starter they felt their agile defense would drop him in his tracks. Bell got loose on the Hawkeyes' first play from scrimmage. He tried to run off right guard and was hit, but he bounced away, turned the corner and rambled 44 yards to the Illinois 7. Three plays later Iowa scored. Both sides agreed that Bell's run set the tone for the game.
After three more Hawkeye touchdowns, the Illini finally stopped Iowa with 2:33 left in the half—or so it appeared. The Hawkeyes faced fourth-and-four on the Illinois 14, so they lined up in field goal formation. But on the snap, holder Jim Hartlieb, the backup quarterback, jumped up, wheeled and threw a strike to tight end Matt Whitaker for the TD and a 35-7 advantage. Afterward, winning coach Hayden Fry was as close to speechless as the loquacious Texan can ever be. "Goodness," he said. "That was like a whirlwind, wasn't it? Unbelievable."
Equally remarkable is how far Iowa has come in one season. In 1988 and '89 the Hawkeyes won only 11 of 24 games, and they lost three of their final four games last year by a cumulative score of 102-14. There was a growing feeling that the 61-year-old Fry, now in his 12th season at Iowa, might be, as he would say, getting plumb wore out.
However, he returned this fall with newfound enthusiasm. A good deal of the credit for his success belongs to three new assistant coaches—Milan Vooletich (defensive ends), Ted Gill (defensive line) and John O'Hara (offensive line). Nobody seems to mind, though, that Fry invariably refers to the Hawkeyes as "my football team." Our is not one of his favorite words.
At the preseason media get-together for Big Ten coaches, Fry said he expected to have "a very fine football team." Nobody believed him. Eight coaches, including Fry himself, picked Michigan to win the conference; the other two voted for Illinois. But the balloting gave Fry what he needed: a motivational tool. He seized on the idea that nobody respects Iowa and instilled that notion in his players. After Saturday's game, Bell reiterated it continually. "Reality," he said, "is nobody believes in us except us."
Fry knows his no-respect theme is nonsense. Last week the AP ranked Iowa 13th, and Fry said, "We deserve to be 13th. A lot of fine teams are ahead of us, and they deserve to be." No doubt about it, he has his players believing that it's the Hawkeyes against the world. And the ploy has worked. Though they lost 48-21 to Miami in the Orange Bowl, they defeated Michigan, Michigan State and now Illinois—all on the road.
Now while Iowa goes about doing some serious California dreaming, the only discordant note seems to be that the students in Iowa City are not impressed. As recently as 1985, students bought 13,000 season tickets. This year they purchased only 5,000. But if Fry keeps this kind of excitement going, they'll be back. More than anything else, students hate to miss a good time. The Hawkeyes might just be a great time waiting to happen.