Iowa 63, Illinois 0: Here's what we learned
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The perfect cure for a losing streak is a game against Illinois.
Iowa came into Memorial Stadium on Saturday having dropped three close football games in a row. The Hawkeyes left with their most lopsided win in this rivalry, which has been contested since 1899.
The final was Iowa 63, Illinois 0. It was a needed blowout for Iowa (7-4, 4-4 Big Ten Conference).
It was a second shutout for the Hawkeye defense, which also blanked Maryland 23-0 this fall. It was the first time Iowa recorded two shutouts in the same season since 2008 (vs. Florida International and Minnesota).
For Illinois (4-7, 2-6), it was a sixth game allowing 46 points or more this season.
Here’s what we learned:
Noah Fant is more than a specialist: The noise all week was about the lack of involvement in recent weeks for the junior who already owns Iowa’s record for touchdowns by a tight end. Coach Kirk Ferentz explained Tuesday that his staff sees Fant as more of a “specialist” while T.J. Hockenson is the tight end with the most complete skill set.
Maybe. But Fant was on the field for the first play Saturday. And then the next 24. He entered the game having appeared in only 55.3 percent of Iowa’s offensive plays this season (he was in for 63 percent of the snaps last year).
Fant had one catch for zero yards in last Saturday’s loss to Northwestern. He had one catch for 8 yards on Iowa’s fifth play against Illinois, good enough for a first down.
On Iowa’s next drive, Fant broke diagonally across the field and was open for a 9-yard touchdown catch from quarterback Nate Stanley. It was the 19th of his career.
Late in the first quarter, Stanley found wide receiver Kyle Groeneweg for a 14-yard connection. Groeneweg was open because two Illinois defenders were stalking Fant underneath.
Fant snared a 37-yard pass down his own sideline that he nearly took to the end zone. Then he got his first breather of the game, after 25 plays. Hockenson, meanwhile, had two touchdown catches.
It was a reminder that the Hawkeyes have two outstanding tight ends who can coexist. Whatever has been keeping Fant off the field in recent games, it’s clear he’s no mere specialist.
Hawkeyes can roast Big Ten's worst: Iowa is not a bad team, despite a three-game losing streak entering this game. The Hawkeyes may not be good enough to upend the best Big Ten teams on their schedule. But they’ve annihilated the bottom teams all season.
Iowa has a 48-31 win at Minnesota, 42-16 at Indiana, 23-0 vs. Maryland and now 63-0 over hapless Illinois.
The Hawkeyes scored in all three phases Saturday. Defensive end A.J. Epenesa forced a fumble, scooped it up and returned it for a touchdown in the second quarter. Punt returner Kyle Groeneweg broke off a 61-yarder in the third quarter for his first career score.
It was reminiscent of last year’s road finale for Iowa, a 56-14 blowout at Nebraska. The Cornhuskers were lifeless that afternoon. Illinois was even more dreadful in this one.
Nebraska fired third-year head coach Mike Riley the day after the embarrassing loss to Iowa. Illinois coach Lovie Smith is also in his third season coaching a team that evidently didn’t want to engage in football activities, at least not on this day.
Iowa run defense back on track: Northwestern broke loose for 184 rushing yards a week ago, a performance that stung a proud Hawkeye defensive front. On Saturday, the challenge was to contain an Illinois ground attack that ranked eighth in the nation entering play, averaging 263 yards per game.
The Hawkeyes had been here before this year, though. Maryland also entered Kinnick Stadium boasting a fearsome, big-play-producing running game. Iowa stopped the Terrapins in their tracks, to the tune of 68 yards on 23 carries.
So it was at Illinois. The Illini’s first 26 rushing plays produced 77 yards. They were 1-for-12 on third-down conversions at that point.
The Hawkeyes were hungry for the shutout. It was obvious. In the fourth quarter, Iowa was sending blitzes at Illinois freshman quarterback M.J. Rivers, the backup.
What a difference a week makes. What a difference an opponent makes.