CHAMPAIGN — The stakes are pretty simple: Win out, and the Illinois football team lands in a bowl game. Lose one and miss the postseason.
The playoffs begin on at 2:30 p.m. Saturday when the Illini host Iowa, a team that has already clinched a bowl berth and has five consecutive wins over the Illini. If Illinois (4-6, 2-5) can send its seniors out of Memorial Stadium for the last time with a win, the next task is beating Big Ten West champion Northwestern next week in Evanston.
“Our history with (Iowa), I think they've won the last (five) games," Illinois coach Lovie Smith said. "It's been a long time, 2008, that we've beaten them. We've played them tough the other two times we've played them, but we haven't been able to get over the hump. Excited about coming back home. Most teams play better at home, and hopefully that'll be the case with us."
There isn't much secret to what the Hawkeyes (6-4, 3-4) do defensively, and that's stop the run. Iowa ranks second in the Big Ten in rush defense, allowing just 94 yards per game, and will be tasked with stopping a rushing attack that's much better than the one the Illini took to Iowa City in last season's loss. Iowa is second in the Big Ten in total defense, allowing 285.9 yards per game.
Illinois, behind running back Reggie Corbin and AJ Bush Jr., rank second in the conference in rushing yards per game with 262.8.
"They play hard, they're sound, they've been playing the same system for a lot of years," 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."
Iowa is one of two Big Ten West teams, along with Wisconsin, that fifth-year senior Nick Allegretti hasn't beaten as an Illini. There's nothing the Hawkeyes and coach Kirk Ferentz are going to do that are going to catch Allegretti off guard in his final game at Memorial Stadium.
"It's a fun game every year," Allegretti said. "It's super physical. They're the same team for the last basically 20 years. We know who they're going to be and what they're going to be."
Last season Illinois went to Iowa City and left with a 45-16 loss while rushing for 200 yards, led by 83 from Mike Epstein and 61 from Corbin in rare action he saw last year.
The Illini have a different rushing attack this year under the direction of Rod Smith as offensive coordinator. Epstein "probably won't" return this season and Corbin is in the middle of a breakout, 1,000-plus-yard season.
He (1,011 yards) and Bush (659) have led the ground attack. Ferentz is familiar with Rod Smith from Smith's time at Michigan with Rich Rodriguez.
"He's done a really nice job with them," Ferentz said. "Their personnel comes in key spots. (Bush) is a new player to the team and obviously been a catalyst for them. (Corbin) is the most intriguing story. Here’s a guy who was pretty much on the bench earlier and now he’s averaging (110.1) yards a game in conference and (10) yards a carry. It’s ridiculous."
The rushing game starts with the offensive line, which is led by Allegretti.
“Last year their offensive line looked young and like they were in the developmental stage," Ferentz said. "They’ve made a huge jump from a year ago. As you know, no matter what you’re selling on offense, if you have a line that can block, it gives you a much, much better chance. That's where they’re different than a year ago. They’ve really matured there and have done a nice job."
The goal for the Illini is the postseason, and to get there the Illini have to dispatch two rivals. For sophomore offensive lineman Alex Palczewski, the goal becomes heightened in order to get Allegretti and the other seniors to a bowl game, the first in the program since 2014.
Palczewski shared a message with the rest of his underclassmen on the offensive line.
"Listen, I know we have to take care of school, but the next two weeks we have to focus and get everything done to get (the seniors) a third game and try to send them out right," Palczewski told his offensive line.