After opening conference play with two straight losses, the Iowa football team returned home to take on Illinois. The two teams remained close throughout the first three quarters before the Hawkeyes (4-2, 1-2 Big Ten) broke out in the final frame to beat the Fighting Illini (2-3, 0-2), 45-16. Let’s take a look back at Iowa’s performance.
With last week’s rough outing behind him, Nate Stanley entered Saturday’s game looking to get the Hawkeyes’ offense going. While it was a mostly positive outing, Stanley did have some issues. The deep ball continues to be a bugaboo for the sophomore, as he overthrew another open receiver deep down the field. His overall accuracy also wasn’t quite as sharp as it’s been in the past, he locked onto receivers from time to time and he tended to hold on to the ball a bit too long at times, causing windows to close or at least get much tighter.
All of that being said, Stanley’s outing was still pretty solid. He continues to show good pocket awareness and doesn’t get rattled by the defense bearing down on him. And even with the aforementioned accuracy issues, Stanley had some nice passes that showed good touch and led his receivers perfectly. Overall, Stanley was 17 of 32 for 247 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. Grade: B-
Following last week’s problems against Michigan State, Akrum Wadley and the rest of the Iowa running backs were looking to get the ground game back on track against an Illinois defense that struggles against the run.
The running room wasn’t always abundant, but Wadley bounced back on Saturday to lead the way for the Hawkeye rushing attack. The senior sat out the opening series but still had a big impact, finishing with 23 carries for 115 yards, including an 18-yard TD run in the fourth quarter. Wadley showed great vision and was elusive as usual, even on a wet playing surface. In addition to his carries, Wadley also caught two passes for 14 yards, including a 2-yard TD right before halftime that gave Iowa a lead it would not relinquish.
As metioned, Wadley did not play on Iowa’s opening possession of the game. Instead, that duty fell to Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin. Although Kelly-Martin fumbled on that drive, the freshmen duo played well against Illinois, with Young leading the way with eight carries for 32 yards. Kelly-Martin rebounded from his error and finished with two carries for 22 yards, while also catching one pass for a 3-yard touchdown. Grade: B+
Wide Receiver/Tight End
The Iowa receiving corps played well against Illinois on Saturday. They were able to get open often and caught everything that was thrown their way. The route running was strong and they were solid in run blocking, though there were a few whiffs on blocks that cut plays short.
Nick Easley has emerged as a favorite target of Stanley this season and that continued on Saturday, as the junior caught a team-leading seven passes for 59 yards. Included among those was a 5-yard TD reception in the first quarter that got the Hawkeyes on the board. Noah Fant has emerged as a dangerous weapon at tight end and he led the team in receiving yards against Illinois, finishing with 78 on three receptions. Matt VandeBerg caught two passes for 48 yards, including a 39-yard TD, while T.J. Hockenson caught two for 41 yards. Ihmir Smith-Marsette rounded out the group with one reception for seven yards. Grade: A-
The offensive line has seen quite a bit of shuffling this season and that was the case yet again on Saturday, with true freshman Tristan Wirfs earning the start at right tackle. Overall, the O-line was solid, as the held Illinois to just one tackle for loss and generally gave Stanley enough time in which to find his targets. That said, it wasn’t exactly a clean performance. Several plays ended quickly because of missed assignments and although Illinois was kept out of the backfield, the running blocking was a bit hit or miss through the first three quarters. Grade: C+
Overall Offensive Grade: B
This may seem like a low grade for an offense that produced 38 points on 441 yards of total offense, but it wasn’t as easy as the final score would indicate. The offense had its issues and didn’t always look like a finely tuned machine, but in the end it got the job done.
It wasn’t the best showing by the defensive line on Saturday. The Iowa front struggled in pass rush, as Illinois quarterback Jeff George Jr. usually faced little pressure to get rid of the ball. The D-line had issues against the run as well, with the Illini gashing the defense to the tune of 200 yards on the ground. That often started up front with some gaping holes in which Illinois could run through.
Anthony Nelson led the group with three tackles, a sack and a forced fumble. A.J. Epenesa and Parker Hesse each had two tackles, while Sam Brincks, Nathan Bazata and Matt Nelson each finished with one. Grade: D
While it won’t be confused as one of their better showings, it was a steady outing from the Iowa linebackers on Saturday. They played well in coverage and the tackling was solid, though there were a couple of misses that led to additional yards. They weren’t quite as strong against the run as they have been in the past, but they weren’t alone in that regard.
Josey Jewell gave Iowa fans a bit of a scare when he left the game to go to the locker room following an upper arm injury, but Iowa’s senior linebacker returned and finished tied for the team lead in tackles with 10. Bo Bower also had 10 stops, while Kristian Welch and Amani Jones added two. Ben Niemann, and Jack Hockaday wrapped up the group with one tackle each. Grade: C
Of the three groups, the defensive backs had the best day on Saturday. While there were some tackling issues early, that cleaned up as the game progressed. Combine that with solid pass coverage, including a couple of outstanding individual plays, and it was a positive day for the Hawkeyes.
The big news coming into the game was the return of Brandon Snyder. Six months removed from ACL surgery, Snyder came back in a big way on Saturday, as he intercepted a pass and returned it 89 yards for a touchdown. In addition to the pick, Snyder added three tackles and broke up two passes. Amani Hooker finished with six tackles and an interception, while Michael Ojemudia also had six stops. Josh Jackson had five tackles, Miles Taylor had two and Geno Stone had one to go along with his first career interception. Grade: B
Overall Defensive Grade: C+
From a points perspective, the Iowa defense did a good job. And while that’s ultimately the only number that matters in the end, the way Iowa got there wasn’t pretty. Illinois came into the game averaging 267.3 yards of total offense and just 106 on the ground. Against the Hawkeyes, those numbers were 446 and 200.
The special teams played well on Saturday. Miguel Recinos drilled a 37-yard field goal and booted six of his seven kickoffs for touchbacks, while Iowa’s coverage units continued to do a good job in limiting returns from the opposition. True freshman Ryan Gersonde took over the punting duties and while he didn’t have great numbers (three punts for an average of 37.7 yards), two of the punts were into a strong wind. The play of the game, however, came on a fake punt in which Hooker took a direct snap and ran 18 yards for a first down. That play allowed Iowa to retain possession and the Hawkeyes would go on to score the go-ahead touchdown right before halftime. Grade: B+
Overall Grade: B
This game felt about as tight as a 29-point victory can feel. Both the offense and the defense had issues but Iowa did enough to eventually walk away with a rather comfortable win.
Stat of the Game: 21-0
Iowa outscored Illinois in the fourth quarter, 21-0. That marked the sixth time in as many games this season in which the Hawkeyes have outscored their opponent in the game’s final frame. Iowa’s overall advantage in the fourth quarter is now 70-20.