Nov. 21—IOWA CITY — All Kaleb Johnson saw was green grass.
At the end of that green grass was a golden ticket to the Big Ten championship game.
Johnson, having been limited to just six yards on his first four carries of the day on Saturday, took off down the field at Kinnick Stadium the biggest play of the day for the 16th-ranked Iowa football team. The sophomore running back dashed in to the endzone from 30 yards out for a go-ahead touchdown run, lifting the Hawkeyes to a 15-13 win over Illinois clinching the Big Ten west division title in Iowa's final home game of the season.
"That is my thing. When I see green grass I run," Johnson said. "I saw green grass, took off running and scored... It was just amazing, man, being back [in the end zone]... I was just reading the safety right there, whether I should press up and go in or go out. I pressed him, went outside and used my speed."
Johnson would carry the ball six straight times starting with the 30-yard touchdown run with 4:43 left. After three straight incomplete passes by Illinois quarterback John Paddock stalled the ensuing drive for the Illini, Johnson clinched the emotional win with a 12-yard carry on third down, moving the chains for the final time in the game as Iowa ran out the final two minutes of the clock after Illinois had used its final timeout.
We've gone through some bumps, had some things happen during the course of the year, even this week, losing a key player (Cooper DeJean)," Iowa head football coach Kirk Ferentz said. "But no matter what, the guys stayed together, stay tough, and really care about each other. I think that's demonstrated in the play out there.
"Today was no different. Probably a fitting way for us to get this done because there's nothing easy today. Goes right down to the end there, certainly. Again, it points back to the character of the guys we have."
The win set of an emotional celebration both on the field and off the field. Brian Ferentz, coaching in his final season as Iowa's offensive coordinator, was doused in Gatorade after the game by Hawkeye football players as time wound down.
"It is awesome, the way things are, and this being his last game in Kinnick. I couldn't be happier for the guy," Iowa quarterback Deacon Hill said of Brian Ferentz. "I haven't been this grateful to play for a coach in my whole life. I am extremely grateful to play for him. I love that guy to death. He puts me in some good spots. He has taught me a lot so far."
The emotions carried over into the locker room. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker presented Kirk Ferentz with a game ball after passing legendary Michigan coach Bo Schembechler for the third-most Big Ten wins after earning his 195th on Saturday.
"I never got into it (coaching) for that reason. And certainly, 23 years ago, you could have made some money on that if you placed a friendly wager, not a real bet. Can't do that," Ferentz said. "But, again, it goes right back to what I was talking about, the caliber of people that have been through here, had a lot of great coaches come through here and the same thing with the players. It's all about that."
Iowa (9-2, 6-2 Big Ten) has overcome several key injuries during a season that began with the suspension of several athletes, including sixth-year defensive tackle Noah Shannon, after a statewide sports-betting probe. Iowa's also had to overcome season-ending injuries to several key players including starting quarterback Cade McNamara, tight ends Luke Lachey and Erick All and DeJean who suffered his injury last week.
"It has got to be the story of our season," Hill said. "Just keep punching forward each and every play, each and every day. Keep moving forward, one step in front of the other. I think we did that today. We knew at some point one was going to break, and we just couldn't let up. We couldn't take our foot off the gas. You know, no matter the outcome of what that drive was, we knew that we had to keep pushing forward each and every play."
Iowa wraps up the regular season on Friday at Nebraska, starting at 11 a.m. Illinois (5-6, 3-5 Big Ten) hosts Northwestern on Saturday seeking a win to become bowl eligible.
— Scott Jackson can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter@CourierScott.