It’s not hard for Illinois head coach Lovie Smith to find a source of motivation for his team heading into a matchup at No. 17 Iowa on Saturday.
All Smith has had to do is point out that Iowa went into Illinois and administered a 63-0 thrashing of the Fighting Illini last year.
“Yeah, I think the guys have heard that a few times,” Smith said.
Illinois certainly has every reason to be more confident it can put up a better showing in Iowa City for the rematch.
The Fighting Illini have resurrected their season after scaring Michigan on Oct. 12, winning four games in a row to become bowl eligible with a 6-4 record, 4-3 in the Big Ten.
Illinois upset Wisconsin and is coming off one of the most thrilling wins in school history when it rallied from a 28-3 deficit to win at Michigan State 37-34 on Nov. 9. Brandon Peters threw for 369 yards in that game and the Illini forced four turnovers to push their season total to a national-best 26.
“We like the position we’re in,” Smith said. “Life is a lot better when you are winning football games and you accomplish more than you have in the past and see the program headed in the right direction. We are all in a little bit better spirits.”
Iowa (7-3, 4-3) also enters in good spirits and with momentum after the Hawkeyes knocked off previously unbeaten Minnesota last week, 23-19.
The Hawkeyes will also have a lot of emotion, given they will be saying farewell to their senior class in their home finale.
“It’s a tough day and bittersweet day,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “You’re so proud of what the guys have done to become seniors in our program and all the hurdles they’ve overcome.”
One of those seniors is quarterback Nate Stanley, who has been one of the better quarterbacks in the Big Ten all season. Stanley has thrown for 2,331 yards, third-most in the conference. He hasn’t had a 300-yard game this season but had been efficient, limiting his interceptions to five (three in a loss to Michigan).
Ferentz said he’s not surprised with the resurgence of Illinois and knows it will be a challenge for his team.
“They have to be one of the most improved teams in the country, not just in our conference,” Ferentz said. “You could kind of see that coming. He was committed several years ago to playing young players, and now those young players are growing up. This past month, they are playing really good football. Winning football.”
The game also has some significance in the conference standings and bowl selections.
The teams are tied for third place in the Big Ten West division, and the winner will move into sole possession of third place with the possibility of moving up further should second-place Wisconsin stumble.
Both teams will be favored in their final games of the season, with Illinois hosting Northwestern and Iowa playing at Nebraska to close the year, adding to the importance of Saturday’s game to the standings.
“The games do get a little bit bigger, and that is where we want to be in November,” Smith said.
–Field Level Media