Last week, Bret Bielema led Illinois against Wisconsin in his first trip to Madison since giving up the Badgers’ head coaching gig to take over at Arkansas in 2012.
Arguably, though, Bielema identifies more with his 11 years at Iowa than his seven seasons at Wisconsin — and he’s had a Hawkeye tattoo on his left calf since 1990 to prove it.
“Hell of an idea when you’re 19,” joked Bielema, who played on Iowa’s defensive line for four years, coached under Hayden Fry for four years and then spent Kirk Ferentz’s first three seasons at Iowa as his linebackers coach.
Ferentz brings his Hawkeyes (3-2, 1-1 Big Ten) to Champaign, Ill. Saturday night at a time when Illinois (4-1, 1-1) is riding its best start since 2015 and threatening to earn its first Associated Press Top 25 poll appearance since 2011.
Of course, that would require Illinois to beat Iowa for the first time since 2008 — and this one could develop into an old-school Big Ten clash where points are at a premium.
Iowa, coming off a 27-14 loss to No. 4 Michigan, boasts the nation’s third-best scoring defense (10.0 ppg) and stands eighth overall in total yards allowed. But Illinois trumps that as defensive coordinator Ryan Walters’ unit ranks No. 1 in scoring defense (8.4 ppg) and No. 3 in yards allowed.
In Saturday’ 34-10 win at Wisconsin, Illinois’ multiple-look defense stacked up five sacks and two interceptions while holding the Badgers to 2 net rushing yards.
Iowa’s offense ranks a distant last among Big Ten teams in points (16.4 per game) and yards (242.2 per game), which has Bielema on high alert.
“Because of (our success) there’s a cousin that creeps in this world called complacency — and you just think these (good) things are going to happen,” Bielema said. “That brings victims out of all of us, right? So with our coaches, our players, anybody that speaks on it, that’s our big challenge.”
One of Iowa’s biggest challenges will be slowing down Illinois senior Chase Brown, who leads the nation with 733 rushing yards and owns six consecutive 100-yard games dating back to last year’s season finale against Northwestern.
“They’ve got an outstanding running back, not just a good running back,” Ferentz said. “A lot of the same challenges (as last week against Michigan) because these guys are really balanced. They make you defend the entire field and then their back is not the same as last week, but similar. He’s a really tough runner. He really runs hard and makes extra yards. We’re going to have to do a better job of getting off blocks and hopefully getting to the ball a little bit better.”