Brown: Hawkeyes remain imperfect, but still have a chance

Rick Brown

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – This had all the makings of a disaster.

Iowa dominated Saturday's first half against Illinois, but couldn't get out of its own way. The Hawkeyes stuffed the stat sheet, and had a 9-7 lead to show for it thanks to blown opportunity after blown opportunity.

Coming off last week's ego-crushing loss at Minnesota, this was not a position coach Kirk Ferentz wanted his team to be in.

"We were struggling," Ferentz admitted. "It could have gone any way at halftime. There's no question about that. No guarantees."

Lose this game, and Hawkeye Nation would have been in complete and justified meltdown. Now, Saturday's 30-14 victory over an Illinois team that has won four Big Ten games since 2011 at least gave Iowa something to play for next week at Kinnick Stadium.

Here comes Wisconsin, with a full head of steam. Then Nebraska, warming up in the bullpen for a Black Friday visit. The Hawkeyes, 7-3 overall and 4-2 in the Big Ten, could still represent the West Division of the Big Ten in the Dec. 6 championship game with a pair of victories.

I realize those odds are long, considering the fact that this Hawkeye team remains a puzzle 10 weeks into the season — and considering the way the Badgers and Heisman Trophy contender Melvin Gordon carved up Nebraska on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium.

Add to that the fact that Iowa's one-sided 51-14 loss at Minnesota Nov. 8 remains a scab that still hasn't healed, and calling Iowa a West Division contender is a leap of faith. But there's a mathematical chance.

Ferentz said Saturday that watching tape of Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt against Purdue in a Oct. 4 game "kind of ruined my night's sleep for the last few nights." Lunt, who threw for 332 yards in that game before breaking a bone in his leg, returned to the field Saturday for the first time since his injury.

Well, I can't image Ferentz will sleep too well this week, either, after watching Gordon run through Nebraska's defense for an FBS-record 408 yards in 25 carries Saturday.

Iowa finished with 304 yards rushing against Illinois Saturday, the fourth most for a Ferentz-coached Hawkeye team. Gordon, a one-time Iowa commitment who flipped, piled up more yards than that against the Nebraska defense in three quarters Saturday.

Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock, who was also offered a scholarship by Wisconsin, completed 14 of 21 passes for 210 yards and two touchdowns. Kevonte Martin-Manley also dropped a Rudock offering for a probable touchdown on Iowa's second possession. Rudock ran for a score, too.

But Rudock also fumbled two snaps from center, and looked like a pitcher who didn't have his best fastball Saturday.

"I mean, I don't think so," Rudock said when asked if he was a little off his game. "You can say what you want, but I felt fine. The coaches might say otherwise. Maybe you should ask them."

C.J. Beathard came in and guided Iowa to its final touchdown drive, hooking up with Damond Powell for a 19-yard score. Beathard completed all three of his pass attempts, for 73 yards. The quarterback controversy, put in the shadows after Rudock played one of the best games of his career against Northwestern, will be a hot message-board topic all week.

I know this. Iowa can't leave scoring opportunities on the table against Wisconsin like it did Saturday against Illinois and have any chance of beating Bucky. You can't chalk up 294 yards and score one touchdown and expect to beat anybody.

"If you're not finishing drives, those yards aren't worth anything," Ferentz said.

Iowa finally got out of its own way in the second half, and avoided another Minnesota, circa 2010.

"We knew we could do what we wanted to," left tackle Brandon Scherff said. "It was on us."

Now it's two games left, both at Kinnick Stadium.

"We've got a tough game at home, I know that," Ferentz said of Wisconsin.

And that was before Gordon ran into the record books.

Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.