Leistikow: Josey Jewell ignites Hawkeyes' defensive gem
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Josey Jewell was a black-and-gold blur Saturday at blustery Memorial Stadium.
The result was a black-and-blue opponent and Iowa’s first Big Ten Conference shutout in seven years, by a 28-0 count against Illinois.
The Hawkeyes’ seventh win of the season was all about the defense. And it was centered, as you might imagine, on the guy in the middle.
Analysis: Iowa turns to winning November formula
That would be on The Outlaw, as Jewell is commonly known.
On Saturday, his head coach might’ve come up with an alternate nickname: The Ignitor.
“He plays a position where they can’t run away from him,” Kirk Ferentz said. “He’s a really good football player. He’s an ignitor, if you will.”
The Illini could run, but they couldn’t hide from Jewell and his 10 defensive partners in crime on this cold, windy November afternoon.
It didn’t take long for the Internet to go wild about Jewell’s punishing third-quarter hit on helpless Tyler White.
Like a heat-seeking missile, Jewell streaked to greet the 6-foot-5, 255-pound tight end just as he caught a pass from Wes Lunt. Jewell said hello by flattening White to the ground for a 1-yard gain, and his Iowa teammates got fired up.
“I think we were having fun today,” said Jewell, who entered Saturday as the Big Ten’s leading tackler and added 10 more to his total. “Sometimes, the cold gets you down. Sometimes, it gets you all hyped. I think we took the greater route and got hyped with it, had the energy going.”
It was not only a hit-film highlight, it was an emphatic example of the brand of football Iowa has been delivering the past two weeks.
Iowa allowed a season-low 198 yards Saturday. That mark is three less than the previous season-low of 201, set last week in the memorable 14-13 win against Michigan.
Iowa takeaways: Why Kirk Ferentz chose to kick off twice
That’s 399 yards allowed in eight quarters, after allowing 599 in four embarrassing ones at Penn State two weeks ago.
“Just came together, and told ourselves that can’t happen anymore,” said fellow inside linebacker Bo Bower, whose pass breakup on Illinois’ final drive clinched Iowa’s first conference shutout since a 12-0 win over Minnesota capped the 2009 regular season. “Some teams can go down the drain; some teams can pick themselves up.”
It certainly felt like the Hawkeyes were about to circle the 2016 drain after that 41-14 loss in Happy Valley.
The players’ response is what has made Ferentz proud the last two weeks.
“That’s good stuff. As a coach, that’s what you love to see,” Ferentz said. “We didn’t do anything magical either week.
“A little bit more attention to detail, a little more determination on the field.”
McCarron punt return sparks Iowa victory over Illinois
Not only was Jewell everywhere, so were fellow linebackers Bower and Ben Niemann.
In his first start of the season subbing for injured Miles Taylor, strong safety Anthony Gair racked up eight tackles.
True freshman cornerback Manny Rugamba continues to impress, and Desmond King was his all-American self.
Defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson almost recorded another safety. And have you noticed young defensive ends Parker Hesse, Anthony Nelson and Matt Nelson quietly playing their best football the past two weeks? They're improving.
Perhaps this statistic tells the story of Iowa’s defensive dominance Saturday: Illinois had as many punts (10) as first downs.
With a defense like that, this Hawkeye team can have a finish to be proud of.
No, the preseason Big Ten West Division favorites won’t play in the league championship game.
Levi Paulsen's nerve-filled week ends with a smile
But if they can slay 9-2 Nebraska on Friday at Kinnick Stadium, there would be a lot of pretty happy Hawkeyes about an 8-4 regular-season finish, considering the way this season was teetering a few weeks ago.
“It’s all about finishing right now," Jewell said. "Looking forward, not looking back.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.