R.I.P. Here Lies The Iowa-Illinois Football Rivalry (1899-2008)


Mas Casa and Dochterman discussed the topic pretty extensively on their podcast this week (worth listening to, as always), with Morehouse all but giving last rites to the rivalry. Frankly, he's probably right to do so: we're in the midst of a six-year gap between games in the football series, the longest such gap since Iowa and Illinois skipped most of the '50s and '60s (they went from 1952 to 1967 without playing one another). Absence does not make the heart grow fonder in this case; it simply makes it easier to forget there was ever a rivalry in the first place.

There was an outcry when Wisconsin was dropped from Iowa's schedule and the Big Ten made a point to make sure they were back on the Iowa schedule as of 2013. There was no such outcry for the news about Illinois sliding off the schedule -- and staying off the schedule for so long. If there was, the Big Ten might have pushed for Illinois and Iowa to renew their rivalry in 2013, alongside Iowa and Wisconsin. That would have meant four years between Ohio State-Iowa drubbings clashes, but if the Iowa-Illinois series had been worth saving, they might have done it anyway -- or at least given it a second or two of extra thought.

But the sad truth is that the Iowa-Illinois rivalry really is essentially defunct right now. There are three ways that a rivalry has life: if proximity keeps the fires burning (which is what kept the Iowa-Iowa State rivalry going during the 15-year span when Iowa beat Iowa State's brains in), if the games are frequently meaningful, and/or if the games are at least dramatic and exciting. Illinois-Iowa has proximity going for it, but that's about it -- and proximity alone isn't enough when Iowa maintains (or will soon be renewing) rivalries with three other border-state schools (four if you count jNW) and an in-state foil.

In the last decade, Iowa and Illinois have finished with winning records in the same season precisely once -- last year (which may also technically be this decade, I suppose). And they didn't even play each other last year. In years where both teams played each other the closest they came to both finishing with winning records was 2008, when Iowa finished 9-4 while Illinois collapsed into a 5-7 mess. That was also one of only two exciting/dramatic games the teams played in the 00s (the other being Iowa's 10-7 upset win over a ranked Illini team in 2007). The other games in the series in the 00s are only memorable for odd details like former Iowa quarterback Jon Beutjer leaving Iowa for the Illini (and facilitating Brad Banks' rise to prominence), Iowa running backs going down one after another in Champaign in 2004, or Jason Reda missing three field goals in the first half in 2005 (though, to be fair, two of them were blocked rather than flat-out missed). Until the 07-08 nail-biters, the teams traded blowouts. Illinois obliterated Iowa early in Ferentz's tenure (40-24 in 1999, 31-0 in 2000), but Iowa responded by dominating Illinois in the middle part of the decade (four of the five wins in that span were by double-digits).

The '90s weren't much better -- only one game was decided by less than 10 points (a narrow 24-21 Iowa win in 1991) -- and both teams spent much of the decade stumbling into mediocrity (or worse). Iowa reached a low point at the end of Hayden Fry's tenure and the early part of Ferentz's tenure, but Illinois was just as bad (if not worse -- they went 0-11 mark in 1997) in the mid-to-late 90s before Ron Turner put together a pair of sold years in 1999 (8-4) and 2001 (10-2 and a Sugar Bowl appearance).

It wasn't always this way, mind you -- the Nick Bell reflection post the other day brought back a host of fond memories of Iowa's memorable 54-28 shitkicking of a highly ranked Illinois team. Iowa rode the momentum of that win (and a few friendly tiebreakers) to the third (and final) Rose Bowl appearance of Hayden Fry's tenure; Illinois stumbled to an appearance in the Hall of Fame Bowl. There are also some good memories of the 59-0 annihilation Chuck Long & Co. delivered to Illinois in 1985 on the way to yet another Rose Bowl appearance, but it says a lot about the current state of this rivalry that some of the most cherished memories happened in games that are 20-25 years old now.

Honestly, you can make a solid argument that Iowa's played more relevant games against every other Big Ten team in that same time span -- in most cases, many many more relevant games. Even Indiana, a historical doormat in the league and someone with whom Iowa shares no particular connections aside from conference affiliation and the letter "I," has produced far more compelling games of late: the 2005 and 2006 games weren't decided until the fourth quarter, the 2009 game was one of the most utterly insane games in recent memory, and the 2010 game came down to a dropped pass on the game's final play. The stakes have rarely been higher than "losing to Indiana would really suck and drop Iowa down the bowl pecking order," but the games have had drama in spades -- which is far more than you can say for the Illinois series.

Mind you, none of this is to say that the Illinois rivalry couldn't be resuscitated in the future. The Wisconsin series was far less meaningful when Iowa went twenty years between losses (1977 to 1997); once Barry Alvarez got the Badgers to start beating Iowa and contending for Big Ten titles, though, it took on a new life. Even if Zook (or his future replacement) isn't able to raise Illinois to that level, though, just playing a series of dramatic games could elevate the series out of its current coma-like state. Indiana football might mean very little in the grand scheme of Big Ten football, but the wild finishes of the last two years (and their wins in 2006 and 2007) have breathed new life into that series -- it's no longer a game that Iowa fans can afford to ignore, which is, sadly, what the Illinois game has been for far too long.

So, no, the Iowa-Illinois series won't be played for the next four seasons (unless they happen to meet up in the Big Ten Championship). In a way, it's too bad -- between an Iowa legacy kid like Nathan Scheelhaase spurning Iowa to play for Illinois (and developing into one of the league's most promising young quarterbacks during his inaugural season last year) and the fact that Zook was finally surrounded by competent assistant coaches (Paul Petrino, Vic Koenning) who were able to turn his potential-laden recruits into actually productive football players, there was a better-than-normal chance that the Iowa-Illinois games could have been both interesting and competitive over the next few years. Then again, if history is any sort of guide, we probably won't be missing much.

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