The hottest team in the Big Ten West currently resides in Champaign, Illinois
“A lot of the same faces, but they’re playing at a much higher level right now,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said.
The Fighting Illini have won four-straight games — their longest streak in eight years
“You know you don’t do that unless you’re playing confident and you’re playing good football,” Iowa senior quarterback Nate Stanley said. “We know that they’re playing well. We know that they’re a physical team and that they will come in and compete.”
Illini head coach Lovie Smith will take Illinois to a bowl game for the first time in his tenure, but the black-and-gold have won five straight games in the series and 10 of 11 overall. Since Smith took over, the combined score is Iowa 137, Illinois 16.
Ferentz said the Illini’s faith in the well-regarded coach is finally being rewarded.
“He went there with a plan four years ago and stuck with that plan,” Ferentz said. “Their administration believed in the plan, they’ve stayed the course and you’re really starting to see it pay dividends for them right now.”
Especially on the defensive side of the ball. That unit has forced 26 turnovers and scored a half-dozen touchdowns.
They lead the nation in both categories. That puts a premium on ball security for the Hawks offense.
“We’re instructing our scout players to come in and rip it out any chance we get, on any route,” Iowa senior tight end Nate Wieting said. “Finishing runs, we’re talking about always high-and-tight, we’re always talking about it in meetings.”
“Coaches keep screaming, you know, take care of the ball,” Iowa junior wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette said. “Gotta make sure you hold on to the rock, because they’re gonna fight to strip it out.”
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