After Senior Day pageantries, Iowa came out slow on both sides of the ball. Illinois took a quick 10-0 lead in the first quarter before Iowa could even muster up 10 yards of offense. The Illini scored on their first two possessions for the first time all season. However, momentum swung on Illinois’ second kickoff of the day when Charlie Jones took the kickback 100 yards for a touchdown. The return set the school record for longest return touchdown. The score sparked Iowa as the special teams leads the Hawkeye victory on Senior Day en route to a 33-23 win.
Special Teams Specialty
The kick return was the play that swung the game in the Hawkeyes’ favor, but the special teams played a big role in the victory on Saturday. The unit as a whole accounted for 21 of Iowa’s 33 points. Jones finished the day with 153 return yards and a touchdown on nine returns. He was elusive every time he touched the ball and was able to create solid yards out of nothing in the punt return game. The senior transfer from Buffalo had about as good of performance on Senior Day as he could ask for.
The other Hawkeye with a great performance on special teams was the Lou Groza award semi-finalist, Caleb Shudak. The senior placekicker nailed 4 of 5 field goals on the day. His lone miss came on a 57-yard attempt that fell just short. His longest in the contest was a 51-yarder that tied his career-long, while he hit three others that combined to put the game out of reach. Shudak has been reliable all season, and his skills were put to use against Illinois. On the season, Shudak has not missed an extra point and is 18 of 21 from the field.
Defense Holds Strong
The key player to watch entering the game for Illinois was Chase Brown. The running back has the potential to be explosive and carry the Illini offense, but he was shut down inside Kinnick Stadium. Brown had just 42 yards on 13 carries while the rest of the backfield added just 36 yards. For a team that likes to depend on the run to win games, they did not record a rushing touchdown and were held under 100 total yards.
In Illinois’ last game against Minnesota, Brandon Peters had just seven completions for 80 yards and a touchdown. In their first drive against Iowa, Peters was six of seven with 68 yards and a touchdown. The Hawkeye defense was favoring the run on that possession, and Illinois was able to take advantage and move down the field effectively. Then the Iowa defense did what they always do: they made adjustments. Discounting their garbage-time touchdown, Peters was held to just seven more completions and 95 additional passing yards. Phil Parker’s unit capitalized their performance with a Jack Campbell pick-six near the end of the fourth quarter to seal it. Campbell finished with a team-high eight tackles and an interception.
Moments of Concern
While Iowa was able to hold Illinois at bay all day, there were some moments of concern from the overall performance. The first scare came on Iowa’s first punt attempt. The snap went between Tory Taylor’s legs and all the way inside the Iowa 30 yard line. After that miscue, everything looked to be falling in favor of the Illini. They took over with great field position, but the defense came out strong and held them to three points.
Alex Padilla recorded his third win as the Hawkeye quarterback, but he finished just 6 of 17 with 83 yards and an interception. Iowa could not find a way to get any production through the air against Illinois. Most of this was due to the dropped balls by Iowa receivers. As a team, the Hawkeye offense recorded six drops by four different receivers. Keagan Johnson and Nico Ragaini had two each. Johnson has been a reliable receiver thus far in the season, but he finished with just one catch for 12 yards. Padilla’s stats likely look a lot better without these drops, but he did enough to put Iowa in a position to win the football game.
Padilla’s longest pass of the day was to Arland Bruce IV for 28 yards. There weren’t many downfield looks from the Iowa offense, and that was largely due to the Illini secondary coverage. Kerby Joseph came up with an interception on a Padilla deep ball intended for Johnson. On the play, Joseph came over the top from the other side of the field to high-point the ball and give Illinois the possession back. The interception was his fifth of the season, but the Illini could not generate any points from the turnover.
Special Teams Leads Hawkeye Victory
It wasn’t a dominating performance offensively for Iowa, but the win on Senior Day made it eight straight against Illinois. It felt as though the Hawkeyes were playing very conservatively in the second half of the game. Their play-calling was cautious, and they put the game just out of reach of the Illini. Padilla was largely accurate on the day, but the dropped balls weren’t helping the stat line. Defensively, Iowa held strong, but it was the special teams that put this one away. Without the game-changing abilities of Jones in the return game and the leg of Shudak, Iowa is in a much closer contest. At the end of the day, this is the ninth win of the season for the Hawkeyes, and their preseason wins total of 8.5 officially hit the over. There’s still a chance for Iowa to advance to the Big Ten Championship in two weeks, but they will need a Wisconsin loss. Iowa plays its final game of the regular season next Friday against Nebraska.