Leistikow: Hawkeyes stave off program questions with domination of Illinois
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Be honest: There was part of you that thought Iowa might be in trouble Saturday against Illinois.
But, hey, don’t beat yourself up.
Kirk Ferentz was pretty nervous before this one, too. Not that that’s anything new for Iowa’s 20th-year head coach.
“Coaches always have dark thoughts,” Ferentz said after his team took the fight out of the Illini in a 63-0 shellacking at chilly Memorial Stadium — where calling it half-empty would have been inflating the crowd size. “I have the market cornered on that one. … I had bad thoughts coming into the game today. Just the what-ifs.”
What if Illinois’ rushing offense carves up Iowa like it had its two previous opponents?
What if the Hawkeyes unraveled amid the program’s first three-game losing streak in four years?
Someone asked senior center Keegan Render if he saw this thorough domination coming.
He said he hadn’t.
Well, not until pregame warmups. That’s when he knew.
“You could just tell it was a little more focused,” Render said, “a little more energy.”
For one Saturday, the Hawkeyes were ready to inflict the pain instead of feel it.
“I didn’t really see this coming,” stunned Illini coach Lovie Smith said.
It certainly looked ominous when, on the game's second play, Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley was intercepted.
But Anthony Nelson's fourth-down sack of Illinois returned momentum to Iowa's column, and it was a one-sided laugher the rest of the way.
Who cares if this was against an inferior Illinois program that is clearly at the bottom of the Big Ten West?
“Nobody likes losing,” said defensive end A.J. Epenesa, who may never have a better statistical day in his life than the one he had Saturday — eight tackles, 1½ sacks, a blocked punt, a forced fumble and a defensive touchdown not even telling the whole story. “And we were tired of losing.”
A six-point loss at Penn State, defined by a goal-to-go interception.
A two-point loss at Purdue on a field goal in the final seconds.
A four-point home loss to Northwestern, of all teams.
Defensive end Parker Hesse is a co-captain and perhaps the single-best team spokesman. What he says is worth special observation; his words often reflect the culture of this team.
"Obviously things haven’t gone the last three weeks how we wanted," Hesse said. "But we still believed in each other, we believed in ourselves. We kind of came out today and we just really had to let it rip. Be ourselves, and play hard. And that’s what we did today, kind of exorcised some demons."
The Hawkeye players needed this badly.
So did the entire program.
No, improving to 7-4 overall and 4-4 in the Big Ten Conference isn't cause for a parade.
But, boy, it sure beats the alternative.
If the Hawkeyes had lost here as two-touchdown favorites, the fan furor toward Ferentz and athletics director Gary Barta would’ve been beyond end-of-2014 levels.
Instead, Iowa delivered the largest victory margin of the Ferentz era … which now includes exactly 150 wins against 101 losses. Players gave him a game ball afterward.
It’s just Illinois, but it’s a statement, nonetheless.
The Hawkeyes still believe they’re a very good team.
Scoff at them if you want, but they believe they’re one or two key plays a game away from being 11-0 right now.
Saturday, the offense gained 400 yards behind a game plan that — imagine this — constantly put Noah Fant on the field.
The defense pitched its second shutout in a month and scored a touchdown.
The special teams blocked a punt and scored, too, on Kyle Groeneweg's 61-yard punt return.
“Today was a glimpse of us playing just good quality football, all three phases,” Hesse said. “That’s a level we want to maintain. We want to keep playing good team football.”
This one was needed.
But it has to be mentioned: This wasn't enough.
No, the Hawkeyes can’t get back the lost opportunities they experienced in four narrow losses.
But they can control finishing the 2018 season in a satisfying way.
Losing next week to Nebraska would make this 63-0 rout totally forgotten.
The Cornhuskers are gunning for Iowa. They experienced a euphoric 9-6 home win against Michigan State on Saturday, a result that lifted their record to 4-7 — meaning Friday’s 11 a.m. game at Kinnick Stadium is the equivalent to Nebraska’s bowl game.
If Iowa loses, a 7-5 season will and should be met with outside grumbling. Legitimate questions can be asked if this program is on the right track if it can only beat the bottom of the Big Ten West barrel.
But if Iowa can beat Nebraska — and even look good doing it — maybe this team can be remembered yet as one that was pretty darn good.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.