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No. 24 Hawkeyes calmly rally past Illinois for fifth win in a row

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Facing its largest deficit of the season Saturday, the Iowa football team didn't flinch. 

The Hawkeyes flexed.

The result was a 35-21 win for No. 24 Iowa, which stopped Illinois in its tracks for three quarters and unleashed its best passing attack of the season to methodically crawl out of an early two-touchdown hole at Memorial Stadium.

Iowa (5-2) has won its past seven meetings with Illinois (2-4). It has won five games in a row this season.

Saturday's comeback happened because an Iowa defense that hasn't allowed more than 25 points in its past 20 games plugged up the Illinois running game, knowing that the Illini could not win through the air. Illinois had 53 rushing yards in the first quarter, but only 41 in the next two. The Illini didn't even move the ball into Hawkeye territory in the second or third quarter. They didn’t score again until 24 seconds remained, long after the outcome was settled.

On offense, Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras overcame a difficult start to throw three touchdown passes while not committing a turnover. He finished 18 of 28 for 220 yards in his best game as a Hawkeye.

Iowa gained only six yards in the first quarter, victimized by terrible field position and unstable play by Petras. The Hawkeyes ended up with 424 yards, scoring 35 consecutive points to drain the drama out of what looked like it would be a close game.

Iowa hadn’t overcome a two-touchdown deficit on the road since 2007 at Northwestern. It took a lot of terrific play by Hawkeye seniors, who knew enough to stay the course.

Iowa senior wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette scored two touchdowns, one receiving and one rushing. Senior kicker Keith Duncan nailed a pair of field goals.

More:Iowa's Keith Duncan reaches out to all who helped memorable Hawkeye season happen

Seniors Nick Niemann and Chauncey Golston led the Hawkeye defense with eight tackles apiece.

Defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon, playing as well as anyone in the country, continued to show his value as well. Illinois led 14-0 and easily drove into Iowa territory to start the second quarter on a pair of rushes up the middle. Nixon, who was being given a rest, came back in and helped stifle the Illini ground game. He wasn’t removed from the game again until the Hawkeyes had taken command.

Nixon finished with five tackles, 1.5 of them behind the line of scrimmage. He has 13 TFLs on the season.

Here's what we learned:

Iowa  tight end Sam LaPorta dives into the end zone as fellow tight end Shaun Beyer celebrates during the second quarter Saturday at Illinois. It was LaPorta's first career touchdown.

Two tight ends, two milestones

In the past four games against Illinois, Hawkeye tight ends had combined for 18 catches and 306 yards. It's been a surefire way to move the football, especially in key moments. The pattern continued Saturday, when both Sam LaPorta and Shaun Beyer got their first touchdowns as Hawkeyes.

LaPorta scored from 22 yards out in the second quarter to get Iowa on the scoreboard, grabbing a pass over the middle at the 8-yard line and making one defender miss before diving into the end zone, as Beyer ran over and threw his arms in the air in celebration. In the fourth quarter, it was Beyer's turn, heading into the same end zone. He grabbed a 16-yard pass in the corner, landing just inbounds, to give the Hawkeyes a 28-14 lead.

Beyer is a fifth-year senior who had waited his turn behind the likes of Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson. LaPorta is a sophomore, who hails from Illinois. The tight ends combined for six catches, good for 94 yards.

Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras is pressured by Illinois defensive lineman Owen Carney Jr. (99) and Roderick Perry II during the first half on Saturday.

Spencer Petras: Rough start, best finish

The Iowa quarterback’s pattern had been to follow up strong first quarters with some very ineffective second and third quarters. On Saturday, he was flustered at the beginning of the game, missing receivers and taking sacks. Iowa used the wildcat formation with running back Tyler Goodson to pick up two of its first three first downs.

Petras did make a few quality throws in the second quarter — finding Smith-Marsette to pick up a fourth-and-3, hitting LaPorta for a 22-yard touchdown and connecting with Beyer for a 21-yard gain down to the Illinois 4. But, after that, Petras showed more of the problems that have beset him in his first year as the Hawkeye starter. He sailed three consecutive passes out of bounds and beyond his receivers’ reach and Iowa had to settle for a short field goal from Keith Duncan to trail 14-13 at intermission. Petras then came out and completed his first seven passes of the second half, including a 4-yard score to Smith-Marsette. It was his first career game with two touchdown passes. Then he added a third, to Beyer.

Middle of Iowa's defense decisive

Illinois, behind quarterback Brandon Peters, mounted two impressive touchdown drives in the first quarter, with success through the air and on the ground. The first quarter ended with Hawkeye backup defensive tackles Austin Schulte and Noah Shannon in the game, and a pair of Illinois runs up the middle and into Iowa territory. Starters Daviyon Nixon and Jack Heflin hustled back into the game. Illinois didn’t gain a single first down in the second quarter, punting three times and giving the Hawkeye offense some needed field position with which to work. It wasn’t all about the defensive interior, but it was a needed start.

Iowa concludes the regular season next Saturday when it hosts Wisconsin.

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.