Leistikow's thoughts on Iowa football's 33-23 win against Illinois: Defense comes through, Hawkeyes are 9-2

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY — On a day that saw Iowa’s offense struggle to complete a pass

On a day that saw Iowa’s special teams start with a negative-29 yard rush on a punt …

The defense, down two key senior starters, again stepped up … and won the day for the Hawkeyes. 

Jack Campbell’s 32-yard interception-return touchdown with 1 minute, 36 seconds left punctuated the Hawkeyes’ 33-23 victory Saturday against Illinois in the home finale at Kinnick Stadium.

Iowa improved to 9-2 overall and 6-2 in the Big Ten Conference and needs a win in next Friday’s game at Nebraska and a Wisconsin loss at Minnesota to win its first West Division title since 2015.

Campbell had a somewhat humorous, triumphant trip to the end zone. As he approached the goal line, he hesitated for a moment … not sure if he should score or take a knee at the 1-yard line so that the offense could run out the clock for a 26-16 win. He sheepishly crossed the goal line, and was even apologizing to head coach Kirk Ferentz afterward.

Ferentz, to his credit, said he was glad that Campbell scored.

"That was the funniest play of the game, because you guys could see how torn he was," Ferentz said, laughing. "I was cheering for him to score, actually, even though it might not be the smart play. It was funny. What he does never surprises me."

After Illinois scored on an impressive eight-play, 75-yard drive to take a 7-0 lead on the game’s opening possession, Phil Parker’s defense locked things down. Eleven of Illinois’ next 13 possessions lasted five or fewer plays; none secured a touchdown.

(Illinois did tack on a 75-yard scoring drive after Campbell's pick-six put the game away.)

Walk-on Quinn Schulte got a lot of free-safety reps with regular Jack Koerner (29 starts) out with an injury he suffered against Minnesota. Ferentz said Koerner and injured cornerback Terry Roberts might be able to return next week.

Cornerback Jermari Harris subbed nicely for cornerback Matt Hankins (37 career starts), who will be out for an extended period.

Iowa defensive end Joe Evans sacks Illinois Brandon Peters during the Hawkeyes' home win.

The 33 points were technically the most points Illinois has allowed to a Big Ten opponent this season. Of course, 19 came from special teams (more on that in a minute) and seven on defense. The lone offensive score of the day (with quarterback Alex Padilla going 6-for-17 for 83 yards) came on Arland Bruce IV’s 2-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.

But it was Campbell's pick-six that was the fitting finish for this game. It was reminiscent of how the Hawkeyes sealed the 2019 Holiday Bowl rout of USC, with linebacker Nick Niemann barreling into the end zone for a final nail in the coffin. Campbell is the 11th different Hawkeye defender with an interception this season, and it was Iowa's first defensive TD since … well, Campbell's against Iowa State in Week 2.

"It is just a great feeling, seeing other brothers succeed on the field," said Dane Belton, who notched his team-best fifth interception in the first half. "When he got that pick, I was just hoping he didn't go down. Because the coaches say 'get down,' but he stayed up."  

More:Recap: Defense, special teams carry Iowa football to 33-23 win over Illinois on senior day

We thought special teams would play a big role. Boy, did it ever.

And the barrage of huge swings on special teams started with a head-scratching misplay by Iowa’s punting unit. A low snap from Luke Elkin skipped underneath Tory Taylor’s hands after Iowa’s first possession and went for a team rushing play of minus-29 yards. (Not exactly helpful for the rushing stats.)

After Illinois turned that miscue into a field goal for a 10-0 lead came perhaps the biggest swing play of the game to give Kinnick Stadium a jolt. Charlie Jones accepted a kickoff at his goal line, blazed on a diagonal line through the middle of the field, then looped to the left sideline where the fifth-year senior’s speed took over. He got the corner, thanks to a sustained block by fifth-year senior Henry Marchese, and delivered the 100-yard kickoff-return touchdown.

It might remind some of another long Jones’ return up the left sideline — C.J. Jones to start the 2003 Orange Bowl. In fact, that was the last time a Hawkeye returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown.

“The kicker was close, " Charlie Jones said. "I was making sure he didn’t get me.”

Both field-goal kickers were terrific. Illinois’ James McCourt made attempts of 46, 45 and 53 yards. Iowa sixth-year senior Caleb Shudak made field goals of 48, 51, 29 and 30. (His 57-yard try at the end of the first half did fall short.)

“I’d say the offense would like to score more touchdowns," Shudak said after his career-best four field goals. He is 18 of 21 on field goals this season, with two of the misses from 50-plus. "But I’m not going to complain. Especially when we get the win."

Iowa freshman Cooper DeJean made a key special-teams tackle inside the Illinois 10 that flipped field position near the end of the third quarter. And then in maybe the weirdest special-teams twist of the game, Iowa had regained the ball and a 20-16 lead at Illinois' 47 after a 9-yard Jones punt return. But after the play, a skirmish resulted in two unsportsmanlike-conduct penalties on Illinois special-teamers Kendall Smith and Michael Marchese. Both were enforced for 30 yards and put Iowa at the Illini 17-yard line — which the Hawkeyes turned into yet another field goal for a 23-16 lead.

More:Charlie Jones' kickoff return TD sparks Iowa football against Illinois: 'Mama, there goes that man!'

A disappointing sequence of offense and play-calling to end the first half.

With a 14-10 lead and coming off a 9-yard Gavin Williams run, Iowa had first-and-10 at Illinois’ 30-yard line with midway through the second quarter. At that point, the play-calling had kept the Illini off balance. But then?

Three straight runs of minus-1 yard followed. Those dead running plays looked familiar, and the third-and-12 draw play to Williams (for minus-1) drew the boo-birds. Shudak’s 51-yard field goal bailed out the decisions/execution.

But more disappointing was that Iowa got the ball down 17-13, with 3:07 left in the first half while knowing it would get the second-half kickoff. That is a prime opportunity for a team to hog the ball, score, then get the ball again to open the third quarter.

But Iowa failed to get a first down in three plays and punted. Then after Belton's interception at Illinois’ 41 with 54 seconds left, the offense went incomplete, 1-yard run, incomplete and missed 57-yard field goal by Shudak. Not sure that sequence could’ve gone any worse. And once again, Iowa found itself in a Big Ten West slog instead of surging to a double-digit lead.

More:Iowa football instant analysis: Another ugly, but satisfying, win for the Hawkeyes vs. Illinois

Don’t discount the recruiting element to Saturday’s Iowa victory.

Illinois coach Bret Bielema has made no bones about it, the Illini and Hawkeyes are going to be going head-to-head on the recruiting trail, more so than when Lovie Smith was in charge. We’ve already seen this play out in the Class of 2022, with Illinois athlete Aidan Laughery choosing to stay home over an offer from the Hawkeyes. The programs have also tussled for three-star defensive lineman Brian Allen, who initially chose Illinois but has since decommitted.

There may be no better recent example of Iowa going into Illinois to pluck crucial talent from under the Illini’s nose than Sam LaPorta. The native of Highland, Illinois, grew up just two hours from Champaign but didn’t get a sniff. LaPorta was the Hawkeyes’ leading pass-catcher in 2020, and the junior tight end is leading the team in receiving this fall, too (37 catches, 425 yards).

The Hawkeyes’ victory Saturday made sure that Illinois will have a losing season in Year 1 under Bielema. The Illini dropped to 4-7 overall and 3-5 in Big Ten play, with a winnable home finale next week against Northwestern.

When Ferentz and Co. continue to hit the recruiting trail, they can throw out this reminder to prospects: Iowa has won eight in a row against the Illini and 13 of the last 14 (2001-present), the only loss coming by three points in the 2008 season.

Freshman adds stability to Iowa’s offensive line.

When Connor Colby got the start at right guard Saturday, he joined a short list in the Ferentz era. Colby has now started eight games this season, tying Tristan Wirfs (2017) for the most starts by a true freshman offensive lineman in Ferentz’s 23 years. In fact, only two true freshmen in the Ferentz era have started more games in their rookie year — cornerback Desmond King in 2013 (12 games) and wide receiver Dominique Douglas in 2006 (11 games).

Also of note Saturday, Bruce became the 31st true freshman starter in the Ferentz era.

Colby, Wirfs and cornerback Benny Sapp (2000) are tied for third with most starts at eight. And on Saturday, true freshman wide receiver Keagan Johnson earned his seventh start of Iowa’s season.

But getting back to Colby. The 6-foot-6, 298-pound Cedar Rapids Kennedy product clearly has earned a ton of trust up front. Most of Iowa's successful running plays went straight up the middle, behind the nucleus of center Tyler Linderbaum, left guard Kyler Schott and Colby. Two of those Hawkeyes were likely playing their final game at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday; and Colby has a very bright future.

“Colby’s done a great job stepping in and being the next man in, and allowing us to be successful in the run game," said running back Tyler Goodson, who rushed for 132 yards on 27 carries. "He’s been doing a great job of listening and learning from those veteran guys like ‘Shooter’ and ‘Lindy’ and other guys in the room. It’s not easy for a freshman lineman in the Big Ten to go out there and do what he does.”

Special shout-out to Goodson … 

Goodson moved past two legendary names into No. 10 on Iowa’s all-time rushing list Saturday. Goodson leapfrogged Shonn Greene (2,228 yards, from 2005-08) and Ronnie Harmon (2,271 yards from 1982-85) and now has 2,345 rushing yards for his career.

Goodson has led Iowa in rushing for 14 consecutive games. He now has 945 yards on 215 rushing attempts this season and is on his way to enjoying the 21st 1,000-yard rushing season in Iowa history and first since Akrum Wadley in 2017.

The climb to No. 9 on Iowa’s rushing list will take a little more time; that’s where Owen Gill (2,556 from 1981-84) stands.

There's a lot of coaching-contract talks going on. What about Ferentz?

With Michigan State's Mel Tucker on the path to reported 10-year, $95 million contract extension … it felt like a good time to check in on Ferentz's contract situation. Ferentz received an extension of the 10-year variety entering the 2016 season. He is still under that same contract, which pays him a base salary of $5 million this season. (He has already earned a $500,000 bonus for achieving eight wins.)

That means just four years left after this one, and the industry standard is to have coaches' contracts span five years into the future for the stability of recruiting. During a halftime interview, Iowa athletics director Gary Barta said he hasn't talked to Ferentz, 66, about his contract … but will do so after the season is over.

“I’ve made very clear, I want to provide everything that Kirk needs to finish his career here," Barta said. "Once the season’s over, we’ll talk about that.” 

On a non-football note, Barta said he was hopeful that the Iowa women's basketball team — which had to cancel its next three games due to positive COVID-19 cases within the program — would be return to action for the Big Ten/ACC Challenge game Dec. 2 at Duke.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.