McCarron punt return sparks Iowa victory over Illinois

Mark Emmert

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The punters were having all the fun early in Saturday’s football game at wind-whipped Memorial Stadium.

By the time Illinois lined up for its sixth attempt, in a scoreless second quarter, Iowa decided to double down on its punt returners.

Riley McCarron joined Desmond King at midfield, staring at Illini punter David Reisner, booting the ball from his end zone with a 23 mph wind at his back.

Iowa wide receiver Riley McCarron returns a punt 55 yards for a touchdown against Illinois on Saturday.

Seconds later, it was McCarron standing in that end zone. The Hawkeye wide receiver ran 55 yards untouched, sprung by a terrific block by King, to take the wind out of the Illini’s sails. Iowa went on to a 28-0 victory before a chilled crowd announced at 39,091.

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“It was kind of a gameplan thing this week just with the wind,” McCarron said of being an additional returner. “We didn’t know where he was going to punt it, how the weather was going to shake out. So we kind of threw two back there because the ball could have gone any way.

“It’s a good feeling. You don’t get those too often, so you just cherish those.”

McCarron, a senior from Dubuque, was the first punt returner to score for Iowa (7-4, 6-3 Big Ten Conference) since Kevonte Martin-Manley did so twice against Western Michigan in 2013.

Buoyed by that 7-0 halftime lead, the Hawkeyes turned the game over to their rushing attack and defense in the second half. The ground game produced 182 of its 262 yards after intermission, with three touchdowns.

Iowa’s defense swarmed Illinois (3-8, 2-6) all day, yielding only 198 yards and never letting the Illini past the Hawkeye 30-yard line. Illinois punted on its first 10 possessions.

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It was the first shutout for Iowa since blanking Ball State in 2010. It was the first spotless performance by a Hawkeye defense in a Big Ten game since throttling Minnesota 12-0 in 2009.

“They’ve been flying around hitting guys and getting to the ball the last couple weeks,” Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard said after watching his defense shine in a 14-13 upset of No. 3 Michigan a week ago. “It gets the offensive guys motivated a little bit when you see them going out there and getting stops. It puts a little bit of pressure on the offense to go down and score.”

That’s what Iowa did on its opening drive of the second half, traveling 77 yards in 12 plays and getting a 1-yard touchdown run from LeShun Daniels Jr. to double its lead to 14-0. The way the defense was playing, that was more than enough.

“Fundamentally sound, they were to the ‘T,’” Illinois running back Kendrick Foster said after gaining just 50 yards on 16 carries. “Their defense did a heck of a job and we just didn’t step up as an offense. It’s frustrating not getting over 100 yards rushing as a team.”

Iowa’s special-teams excellence wasn’t limited to McCarron’s game-turning return, either. Ron Coluzzi averaged 40 yards on his five punts and shrugged off the blustery conditions.

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“Something I’ve enjoyed for a long time playing in the Midwest. It’s either freak out or stick to your mechanics,” said Coluzzi, a graduate transfer. “I’ve faced worse. At Central Michigan, there was a game where it was below zero and just as windy as this. It was actually snowing as well.”

After the game, McCarron stepped back onto the field with his fellow wideouts for a group picture, a tradition at road games. A pumped-up fan wearing a No. 83 McCarron jersey shouted at him from the bleachers. McCarron smiled and told him, “Chill, Bro.”

The fan actually was McCarron’s older brother, Brennan. They later chatted and grabbed a selfie, commemorating a hard-earned victory and a big play by little bro.

“Once I got to about the 15-, 10-yard line, I thought I knew (it was going to be a touchdown). But until it actually happens you never know. It was good to get things going. We needed a little spark and get the guys going,” McCarron said of his return.

As for his brother:

“I just didn’t want him to embarrass me out here. But, yeah, he’s a good guy to have around.”