IOWA CITY, Ia. — The wounded grew for Iowa on Saturday, but — most importantly — so did the win total.
Whenever the time comes to reflect upon this 2015 Hawkeye football season, Oct. 10 might remembered as the date that triggered something special.
"Just coming out with this win today," Iowa cornerback Desmond King said, "is another step closer to the goal."
What's that goal again?
"Win a Big Ten championship," King clarified.
The regular season is half over. But that goal might have been seriously sidetracked without the 29-20 triumph Saturday over an Illinois team that gave the Hawkeyes everything they could handle.
No. 22 Iowa (6-0, 2-0) is in first place by itself in the Big Ten Conference's West Division. They don't crown champions based on style points. It's all about the record, and that's why Saturday's win reminded Kirk Ferentz of a championship season 13 years ago.
That is the place Iowa's 17th-year head coach went after he was asked, "Are these the type of games you have to win those championships you talk about?"
"I think so," Ferentz said, opening his mental history book to 2002 — fresh in his mind after seeing two stars from that team, Dallas Clark and Colin Cole, in the locker room.
That was the year Iowa opened Big Ten play by knocking out Penn State on the road 42-35 in overtime, then returned home to beat a scrappy Purdue team 31-28 on a fourth-down touchdown pass from Brad Banks to Clark. Iowa, of course, went on to an 8-0 Big Ten season and the Orange Bowl that 11-2 year.
"I think we traveled to Penn State and came back here and ran into a buzz saw just like we did today," Ferentz said. "When you come out ahead in a game like this, there's no guarantees, but there's nothing negative about it — absolutely nothing negative to winning a football game like this."
The Iowa coach's opening statement after the 29-20 victory at Kinnick Stadium.
"Like this" was surviving against Illinois (4-2, 1-1) despite losing defensive Drew Ott, maybe for the season with a knee injury. Right tackle Ike Boettger was lost, too — leaving the Hawkeyes to manage the second half without their two starting tackles.
All Iowa did next was double down on its offensive line — Cole Croston, Sean Welsh, Austin Blythe, Jordan Walsh and true freshman James Daniels, from left to right — and preserve the victory behind 180 second-half rushing yards by Jordan Canzeri (and 256 overall, third-highest in school history, on a school-record 43 carries).
"That kind of speaks to the way we do things around here," said Welsh, who also slid to right guard in the first half with Walsh (shoulder) getting treatment. "The coaching staff, when things don't go our way, we don't panic. It's just, 'Keep playing.' That's what coach Ferentz tells us. We don't make any drastic adjustments. We just keep playing."
Quarterback C.J. Beathard improved to 7-0 as a starter, despite attempting just six passes (completing two) in the second half for 10 yards. He came to the postgame interview room with ice packs taped to his left hip and right thigh. He said the right leg hurt the most.
"I'm a little sore, a little banged-up," Beathard said. "I'll get treatment tomorrow, next week."
The Iowa quarterback is now 7-0 as a starter.
Beathard took a lot of punishment Saturday from Illinois defenders. But there he was, standing — like the Hawkeyes — unbeaten after taking punch after punch.
"You've got to be tough. When the opposing team sees the other team's quarterback getting up slow and hurt, that fires them up," said Beathard, who finished 15-of-31 for 200 yards and two touchdowns without a turnover. He also rushed for 29 yards. "You don't want to show the defense that."
Beathard is the first Hawkeye quarterback to start 7-0 since Matt Sherman in 1994-95. He was taking a big-picture approach as he answered questions Saturday, as he should.
Iowa can take another huge step toward its first Big Ten title-game appearance by winning at No. 13 Northwestern (5-1, 1-1), which got trounced Saturday by Michigan. Then there's a well-placed bye week before an Oct. 31 game against Maryland.
Maybe by then receiver Tevaun Smith, running back LeShun Daniels Jr. and tackles Boettger and Boone Myers will be ready for the championship drive. That might not have been a possibility if the Hawkeyes had stubbed their toes as an 11-point favorite vs. the Illini.
"It's tough to see when your starters are going down," Beathard said. "You can't put your focus on that. You've got to trust the next guy in is going to do a good job. We've got Northwestern this week, then the bye week. Once we get to the bye week, we can get some guys back and healthy."