CHAMPAIGN – Could you say that they’re heading to Iowa City this weekend playing with “house money?” Maybe.
If you think about it, Illinois has already accomplished what they set out to do in the 2019 season: Clinch a spot in a bowl game and play relevant football in the month of November. That came about thanks to an incredible four-game winning streak that included a win over then No. 6 Wisconsin and a school-record 25-point comeback in a win on November 9th at Michigan State.
At 6-4 on the season, Illinois is headed to the postseason no matter what they do in their final two games, including this weekend’s difficult match-up with No. 17 Iowa, who knocked off then No. 8 Minnesota at Kinnick Stadium last week.
But the challenge isn’t something that will be daunting to the Illini for more than a few reasons.
Not only are the entering with a four-game winning streak, but Illinois has played relatively well on the road this season, entering with a 3-1 mark away from Memorial Stadium this season. Their only loss came in their fifth game against the Gophers before their most recent run, and in this winning stretch, Smith’s team has knocked off Purdue and Michigan State on their home fields.
What’s stood out the most about these efforts is the Illini’s ability to force turnovers while playing on the road. In their four road games so far this year, the Illini have 11 takeaways while also scoring touchdowns on four different occasions. Those efforts are a big reason why Smith’s defense leads the nation in both total turnovers forced (26) and defensive touchdowns (6).
“I think most teams, especially the Big Ten places that we go to, are hard. It’s tough in general going on the road, you have a home team advantage, but it helps when you’ve done it before,” said Smith on the Illini’s success on the road. “Going to Purdue is a tough place, going to Michigan State is a tough place. But good football teams have to go on the road and win, and i feel we are equipped to do that.
“We run the football on the offensive side, we put an emphasis on ball security and taking the ball away on defense.”
Do that again Saturday against the Hawkeyes, and Illinois will have another special moment in a program-changing second half of their season.