I have a confession to make. I love the Lovie Smith era at Illinois.
Sure, it was fun watching Ron Zook turn four and five-star recruits into one disappointing Illini season after another.
And it was no doubt amusing seeing noted bad-guy Tim Beckman further drive the Illinois program into the ground on the back of, among other things, incredibly poor coaching as well as shady Penn State sex-scandal poaching tactics.
Also there was. . . whatever the hell this was:
Can you imagine if that was in charge of your football program?
But in 2016, when Illinois summoned Mr. Smith off the NFL scrapheap to save its program, he was not only expected to bring optimism to the Champaign faithful, but also a level of professionalism, credibility, and stability that was missing under Zook and Beckman.
He was going to elevate the Illini back to respectability and, in the process, rekindle the fires fueling once competitive rivalries with Big Ten opponents, including our Iowa Hawkeyes.
Well, four years later it hasn’t worked.
Illinois has gone 16-37 since Smith took the helm and is still scraping along the bottom of the Big Ten West, finishing 6th or 7th in the division in three of Smith’s first four seasons in Champaign. At 1-3 so far, the Illini are poised to add 2020 to that list.
Which is why Illinois under Smith is so much more enjoyable to watch than under his two predecessors. Lovie was a successful NFL head coach. He actually led a team quarterbacked by Rex Grossman to a Super Bowl. He has the name and cache to demand respect and, most importantly, his name is not Tim Beckman.
And yet, the Hawkeyes still pound the Illini year-over-year.
Smith is 0-4 against Iowa, has been shutout twice by the Hawkeyes, and has lost to Iowa by an average of four touchdowns per game. Over the last 12 meetings, Iowa is 11-1 against Illinois including a 5-1 record in Champaign. In fact, the Hawkeyes have won their last three games at Memorial Stadium by a combined score of 121-14.
Besides the overall talent disparity, the biggest chasm between the two programs over the past four seasons has been at quarterback. From 2016-2019, the Illini have had four different starting quarterbacks under center against Iowa:
- Wes Lunt
- Jeff George Jr.
- A.J. Bush Jr.
- Brandon Peters
Only Peters, who transferred to Illinois from Michigan, will start for a second-straight season against the Hawkeyes when the teams meet Saturday. The Hawkeyes have used three different quarterbacks in the same time span with Nate Stanley starting for Iowa in the last three contests against the Illini.
It's no wonder Smith's teams have been outscored in the series 155-26.
2016: Iowa 28, Illinois 0
Fresh off the memorable 14-13 upset of #2 Michigan, Iowa shut out Lovie's first Illinois team 28-0 on a cold, windy day at Memorial Stadium.
It wasn't a pretty sight. You could even say it was downright hideous. Both quarterbacks, Iowa's C.J. Beathard and Illinois' Lunt, combined to go 28/58 on the day for 217 yards, two interceptions, and zero touchdowns. Yeesh.
A defensive slog for the first 20 minutes finally gave way to some scoring courtesy of Riley McCarron and one of the smoothest punt return touchdowns you'll see.
From that point on, the rout was on. The Hawkeyes' ground-attack was on point, led by the two-headed monster of Leshun Daniels and Akrum Wadley. Daniels ran for 159 yards and two scores while Wadley added 82 yards and a touchdown.
As forgettable as this game now seems, it will always have a special place in Iowa-Illinois lore because NO KICKOFFS.
2017: Iowa 45, Illinois 16
After starting 0-2 in the Big Ten, the Hawkeyes badly needed a conference win to keep the season from falling apart. Thank goodness Illinois came to town.
Iowa trailed 13-10 late in the first-half before outscoring the Illini 35-3 the rest of the way in a 45-16 whipping. Stanley threw for 247 yards and three touchdowns while Wadley dashed for 115 yards on the ground and a score.
The Hawkeye defense forced four turnovers, picking off George Jr. three times, the most notable a back-breaking 89-yard pick-six by safety Brandon Snyder that effectively ended the game.
2018: Iowa 63, Illinois 0
One week removed from watching Northwestern win the Big Ten West at Kinnick Stadium, a disappointed Iowa team took out a season's worth of frustrations in a 63-0 decimation of Illinois in Champaign.
Iowa running-backs Mekhi Sargent and Toren Young rumbled for a combined 188 yards and four touchdowns, but the day was truly carried by a team effort. The Hawkeyes scored nine (!) touchdowns: four via the run, three via the pass, one on a punt return and another on a scoop-and-score. I could throw more stats at you, but videos are more fun.
The victory was Kirk Ferentz's 150th win at Iowa and the margin (63-0) was the largest by either team in the series since 1902.
2019: Iowa 19, Illinois 10
Last season, a much-improved Illini team came into Kinnick Stadium and hung around most of the way, but couldn't overcome what felt like 15 Keith Duncan field-goals in the 19-10 Iowa victory.
It was a scoreless day for Stanley, but he still threw for 308 yards and flashed signs of brilliance like these outstanding passes under duress to wide receiver Ihmir-Smith Marsette:
But the real story of the day was Duncan, who went 4/6 on kicks, his longest a 45-yard boot to put the Hawkeyes up 13-7 at halftime.
Only in Iowa do we show kicker highlights. . .
Duncan outscored Illinois 13-10 and his 29-yarder with 2:44 left in the game put Iowa up 19-10 and linebacker Kristian Welch put a bow on the day with a beautiful sack to end the contest.
It's one thing to beat up on the Zooks or Beckmans of the world, but it's another to continue rolling against the guy that was supposed to resurrect the program (hello Scott Frost).
So here's to you Lovie Smith: Thank you for elevating the Illini program out of the doldrums of the Ron Zook/Tim Beckman eras and into your rightful 6th-place in the Big Ten West. You'll never be good enough to win anything but you're still good enough to hilariously punk Nebraska from time-to-time, and for that I salute you.
And here's to you losing once again to Iowa on Saturday.