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Illinois to face Iowa in final home game

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Illinois to face Iowa in final home game

Illinois running back Reggie Corbin (2) carries the ball down the field for a touchdown during the game against Minnesota at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 3.

Illinois running back Reggie Corbin (2) carries the ball down the field for a touchdown during the game against Minnesota at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 3.

Austin Yattoni

Illinois running back Reggie Corbin (2) carries the ball down the field for a touchdown during the game against Minnesota at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 3.

Austin Yattoni

Austin Yattoni

Illinois running back Reggie Corbin (2) carries the ball down the field for a touchdown during the game against Minnesota at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 3.

By Tatiania Perry, Staff writer

Illinois will be welcoming Iowa to Memorial Stadium for the 34th time on Saturday.

The teams have met a total of 74 times, with Illinois leading the series 38-33 with two ties. Iowa is currently on a five-game winning streak dating back to 2008.

Last season in Iowa City the game was tied 13-10 late in the second quarter, but before halftime Iowa took the lead and held Illinois to a field goal for the rest of the game. The Hawkeyes pulled away with 21 points in the fourth quarter, and the Illini fell 45-16. Running back Mike Epstein had seven carries for 83 yards before he was sidelined with an injury — the same injury which ended Epstein‘s freshman season.

In 2016 Illinois lost at home 28-0 with West Lunt as the starting quarterback.

In fact, the Illini’s last win against the Hawkeyes was a 27-24 victory in 2007. Matt Eller kicked 46-yard field goal with 24 seconds left on the clock, and Illinois held back Iowa despite a fourth-quarter comeback attempt.

They play hard. They’re sound. They’ve been playing the same system for a lot of years,” head coach Lovie Smith said.  “They don’t make many mistakes. Tough football team. Discipline. That’s what they have, and that’s what they’ve been for many years.”

Illinois hopes the lack of scoring in the previous contests against Iowa will come to a halt this season. Offensive coordinator Rod Smith has changed the game with the help of leaders like Nick Allegretti and Reggie Corbin.

In November, the Illini led the nation in rushing yards with a total of 813, in rushing yards-per-carry at 9.68 and in rushing touchdowns with 10. The offense ranks fourth in yards-per-play — 8.62 — and sixth in total yards — 1.155 — while punting just six times.

Allegretti made the Pro Football Focus Midseason Big Ten first team with the second-best grade for offensive guard.

In his time at Illinois, he’s made 34 consecutive starts and has played all but five snaps this season behind what was a young and very inexperienced offensive line.

Allegretti is someone who Corbin said he looks up to and always congratulates alongside his own accomplishments.

When Corbin reached his 1,000th rushing yard, in his announcement he recognized all the members of his offensive line. Corbin has also had an outstanding season with an average of 8.9 yards per carry — the second most in the FBS.

With the help of Corbin and quarterback AJ Bush, the Illini are averaging 262.8 rushing yards per game, the eighth-best in FBS and currently second in the Illinois season rushing average list behind the school record of 275.7 set in 1953. The number is a huge improvement from last season’s average of 157.2.

As for Bush, the quarterback ran for 187 yards and three touchdowns at Nebraska last week, breaking Juice Williams’ record for single-game rushing yards by a quarterback, which was previously 174 against Eastern Illinois in 2008.

I saw a player that was really motivated,” Lovie said.  “Especially when you go back to a place that you called home. AJ is tough duty. He’s big, he’s athletic, (has) good speed, and whenever you have an athletic quarterback like that, you can move the chains with his legs.”

On the other side of the ball, Lovie has taken over the play-calling following the resignation of defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson.

Takeaways play the biggest part in the Lovie Smith defensive system. Illinois has been among the top teams in the nation in interceptions all season due to a strong start at the beginning of the year. The team is sixth in the FBS and second in the Big Ten with 14, just behind Maryland’s 16.

Illinois is ranked No. 16 nationally and second in the Big Ten for turnovers gained at 19. They’ve forced a least one turnover during 23 of the last 24 games, but the streak was broken at Maryland after 21 straight games.

The Illini are currently 4-6 going into the game against the Hawkeyes and need to win the final two matchups to assure the program a bowl game appearance for the first time since 2011. 

Lovie Smith has instilled in the team the importance of treating this game, and the next, as if it were postseason play.

For the seniors, this is their last chance. 

“Seniors that are leaving have excellent leadership on and off the football field,” Lovie said. “They’ve put their time in here building a program. Once you get to your senior year you’ve gone through an awful lot with sacrifice and hard work, and you want to finish it off the right way.”

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