The Iowa Hawkeyes will represent the Big Ten West in Indianapolis on the first Saturday of December. Through all the adversity faced during the season, critical injuries, and outside noise, Iowa will play for a Big Ten Conference Title. It got there with a victory over an Illinois team that had been playing its best football of the season. Iowa’s 15-13 win on Saturday was indicative of its entire season. It started out well on offense, then got into a familiar lull late in the game. That was before it finally broke through with a field position win and big-play touchdown late in the fourth quarter. The defense held strong all day and came up with two tremendous stops in the fourth quarter.
The Final Sequence
Iowa finally caught a break after four straight possessions that began inside its own 23-yard line. Kaden Wetjen returned a punt 17 yards to the Iowa 46-yard line with under seven minutes to play. A couple of Iowa run plays and a blatant defensive holding moved the ball to the 30-yard line. Kaleb Johnson then carried the football into a seven-man defensive front. Aided by Addison Ostrenga’s critical block, Johnson took it into the end zone to give Iowa its first lead of the second half.
But the extra point was blocked, keeping it a two-score game. Nerves did not settle for the Hawkeye faithful, as the passing attack of Illinois took the field with under five minutes to play needing only a field goal. The Illini offense gained eight yards on two plays, setting up a huge third and two. This was where the Ames, Iowa native Joe Evans made the two biggest plays of the season. On third down, he got his hands into John Paddock’s passing lane, batting the ball incomplete. Following an Illinois timeout, the offense put the ball into the air again on fourth down with the game on the line. Evans got his hands up once again, knocking the ball incomplete.
The Hawkeyes took over on downs with under four minutes to play. Deacon Hill handed it to Johnson five times in a row. None were bigger than his 12-yard rush on third and eight, icing the game. Brian Ferentz called for victory formation in his last game on the Iowa Hawkeye coaching staff inside Kinnick Stadium to send his team to Indianapolis.
Iowa Defense Stands Out vs. Illinois
Paddock and the Illini offense threw the ball 47 times but completed just 22 attempts. Isaiah Williams was a known downfield threat ahead of the game, and he did finish with over 100 yards. However, the Iowa defense, shorthanded as it was without Cooper DeJean, did an excellent job of limiting the success of the opponent’s passing game. Illinois gained 280 yards on the day, and 215 came through the air. Phil Parker’s defense allowed just four of Illinois’ 12 drives to get inside the Iowa 34-yard line.
Deshaun Lee stepped in for the injured DeJean. Lee had a pass interference early and was tested constantly. 20 of the 47 pass attempts went to the right side of the field where Lee was lined up. Just 62 yards were gained on those throws. Those throws accounted for 43% of Illinois’ passes and totaled just 28% of its overall passing yardage. Lee’s ability to start Iowa’s biggest game of the year as a redshirt freshman and play this well was crucial for Iowa’s win.
Sebastian Castro made a play that should not be overlooked as a part of the dramatics of the game’s ending. With time expiring in the third quarter, Illinois lined up for third and one at the Iowa 11-yard line. Paddock kept it on a quarterback sneak and was stuffed at the line, but bounced it out wide. Castro shot out of a cannon to make a tremendously athletic open-field tackle, stopping Paddock right at the line of scrimmage. Illinois was forced to settle for three points. The field goal made the game 13-9. A first down there might have led to a touchdown, creating a much more difficult situation for the Hawkeyes. Castro’s open-field tackling abilities have been on display all year, but none greater than this one to hold the defense strong.
Iowa Wins Big Ten West
In Kirk Ferentz’s 25th season at the helm, he has put together one of his best coaching performances. He navigated adversity with injuries, and negative outside noise, and kept his program together through it all. Against Illinois on the second-to-last weekend of the season, Iowa continued to win. It is now at nine wins in a season for the fourth time since 2018. Iowa has a chance to make it ten wins for the third time in that stretch. It also now has a chance to win a conference title in two weeks. This is something that programs around the country would do anything for, yet Iowa keeps getting talked about in a negative light. Only 20 teams play on the first Saturday of December. Keep talking about Iowa.