CLOSE

The Iowa head coach also won his 150th game at the school and was presented with a game ball by players. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE

A good friend who watched Iowa’s 63-0 dismantling of Illinois texted me after the game Saturday. He mentioned how the Fighting Illini fans had little to cheer for except occasional first downs, and how it reminded him of the (true) stories of the 1970s when Iowa fans were relegated to the same fate amid two decades of losing football.

The Hawkeye program showed it still has muscle in Memorial Stadium.

An Illinois team that ranked fifth in the nation in yards per carry was physically and mentally outmatched.

“Just disciplined football. Fundamental football,” Big Ten Network’s J Leman said during the broadcast. “That’s what you expect over the years from a Kirk Ferentz-coached football team.”

Indeed, that’s been the staple of Ferentz’s 20 years at Iowa. That brand of football has kept Iowa (now 7-4 this season) far, far ahead of where Illinois stands currently. And on Saturday, it helped give Ferentz his 150th win as the Hawkeyes’ head coach. A university video from the postgame locker room showed the raw emotion in Ferentz’s eyes as safety Jake Gervase presented him the game ball.

“We may not be playing what we want to play for, the Big Ten championship,” Gervase announced, “but we wouldn’t want to play for anybody else, Coach.”

There was a lot for Ferentz to proud of Saturday. Let’s get to the film.

The next Desmond King?

It may be going under the radar just how good Amani Hooker is at football.

Here’s a guy who switched positions during the bye week — from primarily playing strong safety to outside linebacker — and has, in my opinion, been the Hawkeyes’ defensive MVP of 2018.

The junior showed the full gamut of skills Saturday …

In run support: On the first play of Illinois’ third drive, he peeled off his coverage of Trenard Davis as soon as he saw a pitch to running back Reggie Corbin — and tackled him for a 4-yard loss.

In pass coverage: He seemed to have his eyes everywhere on his interception of A.J. Bush on fourth-and-4 in the third quarter. He showed his smarts (keeping an eye on Jakari Norwood out of the backfield), athleticism (contorting his body to leap into the throwing lane of Bush’s throw) and hands. His fourth interception of the season was the sixth of his career, and he returned it 39 yards.

Even as a punt returner: Sometimes deployed as the second deep man with Kyle Groeneweg (six returns, 105 yards on Saturday), Hooker nabbed one early Illinois punt and shifted his way for a 9-yard runback. It may seem small, but that’s basically a first down’s worth of hidden yardage.

At 6 feet, 210 pounds, Hooker is reminding me more and more of Desmond King — Iowa’s 2015 Jim Thorpe Award winner. King is now starring for the San Diego Chargers as a slot cornerback, a position of growing importance at all levels in today’s pass-happy football. The type of player that position requires is someone who can cover wide receivers one-on-one, be physical against the run and create turnovers.

Hooker is essentially playing as a slot corner while listed as outside linebacker. Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker calls it the “star” position. And Hooker is no doubt becoming a star, in more than title only.

CLOSE

Iowa tight end Noah Fant on getting more involved in the offense against Illinois, and whether he thinks he's being underutilized Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

They’re simply better together

When I submit my all-Big Ten Conference ballot next week, it’ll be a close call. But I’ll probably go with T.J. Hockenson as the first-team tight end, and Noah Fant second team. Hockenson leads the Hawkeyes with 41 catches and 663 receiving yards. Fant is close behind with 38 receptions for 507 yards. Both players have seven touchdowns (Hockenson has one rushing).

But this Illinois game underscored just how silly it was that the pair hadn’t been on the field more often together during Iowa’s three-game losing streak.

On Fant’s 9-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter, it was Hockenson whose perfectly executed crossing route created just enough traffic to free up Fant to make the scoring play.

Later on a Nate Stanley bootleg, Hockenson ran a deep route — showing he’s got wheels, too — and Fant ran underneath, drawing two defenders. That left Groeneweg wide open for a 14-yard gain. That set up Mekhi Sargent’s first of two touchdowns — in which Hockenson (6-5, 250) pancake-blocked freshman free safety Delano Ware (6-0, 200) into the back of the end zone while Fant played decoy on the other side. Hockenson’s block was so ruthless, I actually felt bad for the poor kid.

Then — how about this for karmic symmetry — Iowa’s longest drive of the day started with a 37-yard pass up the left sideline to Fant … and ended with a 37-yard touchdown pass up the left sideline to Hockenson (in which Fant's block in pass protection averted a possible sack) on third-and-1.

They’re the Big Ten’s two best tight ends ... and, quite obviously, better together.

CLOSE

Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa had 8 tackles, including 3.5 for losses, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, a touchdown, a blocked punt and a sack. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

A.J. Epenesa, beast mode

There were so many fantastic A.J. Epenesa plays Saturday that it was hard to pick just one.

But DVR Monday decided to put the spotlight on the sophomore defensive end’s second-quarter blocked punt. Because it was an example of smart coaching blended with elite physical talent.

On fourth-and-1 from its own 34, Illinois lined up to punt. Already up 21-0, Iowa largely kept its base defense in the game — with Groeneweg back as the returner. It looked like a typical “punt safe” defense, which is used when teams are worried about a fake. But this was actually a two-man, targeted punt rush called by special-teams coach LeVar Woods.

“We put that in probably Wednesday or Friday,” Epenesa would say later, “talking about how we have confidence that we could put some size up against this guy … just to be able to work speed and strength against a guy that’s a lot smaller. And get to the punter.”

On the left, Anthony Nelson (6-7, 271) was lined up against edge protector Christian Bobak (6-0, 200). Epenesa (6-5, 277) was matched up on the right Dawson DeGroot (6-1, 200). Both Hawkeyes bull-rushed to collapse the punt pocket quickly. Epenesa exploded past DeGroot’s helpless block attempt and got his right hand on the football as it left Blake Hayes’ left foot.

Once again, this was a great example of the value of putting your best players in advantageous positions to make game-changing plays. 

Appreciating the little stuff

Iowa’s best possession receiver was reliable and sure-handed in a different way early in Saturday’s game.

On fourth-and-8 from Illinois’ 38 in a 0-0 game, Stanley was asked to flick the fifth pooch punt of his Iowa career over top of the Illini’s base defense. A good idea, yes. But perfect execution isn’t just on the former high school punter.

Senior Nick Easley, lined up in the left slot, was sprinting from the get-go on an angle to his right. As the punt landed at the 12-yard line, Easley was at the 16. He kept hustling and got his body just outside the goal line just in time to collect the bouncing ball at the Illinois 2.

Remember just a week ago, Iowa’s special-teams failure to down a rolling Colten Rastetter punt inside the 5 resulted in a Northwestern touchback — giving the Wildcats more breathing room for their first touchdown drive.

Pinning Illinois deep helped Iowa get the ball back at the Illini 39 — setting up its first touchdown drive on a short field. And the rout was on.

CLOSE

Fifth-year senior Kyle Groeneweg has given the Hawkeyes a boost most of the year in the punt-return game, and got the ultimate payoff Saturday. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

Bring in the youngsters

Lots of inexperienced players got a cup of coffee in this blowout, a great move especially given the NCAA's new red-shirt rule. While there's not enough of a sample size to draw any conclusions about how they did, some observations:

True freshman D.J. Johnson (6-0, 170) played in his second game, and Iowa lined him up in Hooker's "star" position. Perhaps that's an inkling of where Parker sees one of the top recruits in the Class of 2018 fitting long term.

True freshman Jack Plumb (6-8, 250) must be doing good things in practice, as he has been the No. 2 right tackle in recent weeks. Plumb's first ever game action was raw, but he was in there for Toren Young's 14-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.

I also liked what I saw from junior left guard Landan Paulsen (6-5, 305). Iowa is going to need two new guards next year (with Cole Banwart likely moving to center), so the tryouts for those spots are already under way.

It was nice to see junior Devonte Young (6-0, 203) get reps as the No. 2 strong safety. The former receiver switched positions in the middle of the season, and he showed a physical edge (not to mention having a nice block on Groeneweg's punt-return TD).

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.

LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE