Illini carry 'positive energy' into game at Iowa

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Much has been made about the unifying football off-season that set the groundwork for Iowa’s 5-0 start and No. 22 national ranking.

This Saturday, that togetherness script applies to both teams that’ll take the field at Kinnick Stadium. For Iowa, the process started in January. For Illinois, it was kick-started a week before the season.

From the outside, Illinois’ program seemed to crater on Aug. 28 when head coach Tim Beckman was fired, seven days before the Illini’s scheduled opener with Kent State, after a preliminary-investigation report on allegations of player mistreatment.

But the exact opposite occurred, with the Illini banding together under new interim coach Bill Cubit.

“Just positive energy. No negative thoughts,” defensive back V’Angelo Bentley said. “That’s what’s propelling us right now.”

The Illini will enter Kinnick Stadium with a 4-1 record, fresh off a 14-13, Big Ten Conference-opening win over Nebraska — a team some expected to win the West Division. They’ll be in Iowa City on Friday, in preparation for Saturday’s 11 a.m. Homecoming game (to be televised on ESPN2, a switch announced Thursday after ESPN redistributed broadcasts to accommodate a late site change in LSU vs. South Carolina). About 4,000 tickets remain.

The message delivered to the players by Cubit, who will turn 62 Wednesday, will be the same one he’s provided since being elevated from offensive coordinator.

“We have this togetherness. That’s the last thing I talk about before we leave the hotel,” Cubit said. “And they’re buying in. When you buy in, there’s a lot of good things that can happen. There’s a lot of talented teams that can’t win. There’s a reason.”

Maybe that explains why Illinois gave up an average of 456.4 yards a game in 2014 (109th in FBS) and 303.4 a game this fall (21st nationally). When 11 play as one, results seem to follow.

“When you watch them on film, they're just a better football team, in every regard,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “They're playing tighter, cleaner. The statistics reflect that.”

The Illini also are plus-4 in turnovers; they were minus-3 during a 6-7 season in 2014.

“We’re all believing in each other,” said Bentley, Illinois’ all-time leader in kickoff return yardage and the leader in a veteran secondary. “Everyone’s taking responsibility for what they need to do.

“In return, it’s making us a better team. When the offense is on the field, we’re believing in them. When we’re on the field, the offense is believing in us.”

Iowa isn’t taking Illinois lightly. The Hawkeyes know what a positive message within the locker room can do.

That started almost instantly after the Beckman news broke, after which Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt praised Cubit as “like a father to most of us.” We've heard a lot about New Kirk at Iowa; this is New Illinois.

“They’re a whole different program right now,” Iowa defensive end Nate Meier said. “Their head coach has them humming pretty good. Their whole offensive line is improved. They’re good.”

NO. 22 IOWA (5-0, 1-0 BIG TEN) VS. ILLINOIS (4-1, 1-0)

Time, place: 11 a.m. Saturday, Kinnick Stadium


The line: Iowa is favored by 11

Tickets: Iowa had sold more than 66,000 tickets as of Thursday morning. Fans can purchase seats ($65) by calling 1-800-IA-HAWKS, by visiting or by going to the Carver-Hawkeye Arena ticket office.