Iowa football: Hawkeyes use long gains to offset offensive futility in win over Illinois

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — On a day where Iowa’s offense was more a sporadic flicker than a consistent flow, the Hawkeyes had to make their riveting moments count. Nothing could be wasted on this sluggish day.

Despite more ground-game futility and infrequent end-zone visits, Iowa timed its air attack perfectly for a slew of crucial gains. It was more a slow jog than a swift gallop to 300-plus passing yards, but the Hawkeyes couldn’t have maximized their long connections any better. They needed every one of them to dodge Illinois’ budding unit, 19-10, Saturday inside Kinnick Stadium.

“If you can win deep,” quarterback Nate Stanley said, “you want the most yards you can on any given play.”

Iowa wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette (6) pulls in a pass as Illinois defensive back Devon Witherspoon (31) defends during a NCAA Big Ten Conference football game, Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa.

Eight of Stanley’s 18 completions covered 20-plus yards, spread across five different pass catchers. Five of those eight lengthy gains came on Iowa scoring drives.

No play popped more than Stanley’s drive-saving hookup with Ihmir Smith-Marsette late in the third quarter. The sturdy 6-foot-4, 243-pound quarterback absorbed a direct hit from linebacker Dele Harding, spun away from the untouched blitzer and rolled left with his eyes downfield. An on-the-run heave dropped perfectly into Smith-Marsette’s lap for a 40-yard gain.

Five plays later, Keith Duncan drilled his third field goal to hand Iowa its first two-score lead of the day.

“The initial route was basically stop and get to 10 yards, find the sticks and try to get the first down, said Smith-Marsette, who finished with a career-high 121 yards on four catches. “I saw he got blitzed and was potentially about to get sacked. But Nate’s a big dude — he stayed on his feet — and as soon as I saw the defender fall off and Nate stumble and come back out of it, all I did was turn around.

“That’s something we practice — short man goes deep — and all I did was turn off. Nate put a great ball on me. I just had to catch it, finish it. It was a big play.”     

It was far from Smith-Marsette’s only one.

His day began in style when Iowa needed a boost. A promising opening drive was on life support in plus territory — a scenario all too familiar for the Hawkeyes this season. Kirk Ferentz wanted six. The situation — fourth and 6 from the Illinois 31-yard line — made for a reasonable dice roll.

Another Stanley rollout worked to perfection as Smith-Marsette wiggled behind the secondary for a 26-yard connection. The play unfolded strangely with Nico Ragani almost on top of Smith-Marsette when he made the grab, but the completion kept a light Kinnick crowd pumping all the same.

Tyler Goodson walked in from two yards on the next play. Four plays before Smith-Marsette’s grab was a 22-yard strike to Sam LaPorta, pushing the Hawkeyes near midfield. That drive was Iowa’s cleanest of the day.

“We knew it was going to be a tough game coming into this one, very physical defense,” Smith-Marsette said. “We called up a play; they had a good scheme for that play. They essentially attacked the pocket hard, and Nate extended the play again. All I had to do was go up the field again. I had somebody underneath me, somebody on my inside, and literally as soon as I saw Nate go out, I knew I had to go up. Just be open for him and give him a chance.

“That’s one thing about me, I always say, 'give us a chance.' When you give us a chance, it goes to show how much we can work and put pressure on a defense.”         

The pivotal passes didn’t stop there. For as emphatic as Geno Stone’s fourth-down sack was right before halftime, Iowa doesn’t steal three points there without Tyrone Tracy’s ensuing 22-yard snag along the sideline. That gave Duncan a shot to hit from reasonable distance.

Shaun Beyer wedged his way into the action as well. His 40-yard haul on a route up the middle flipped the field, energizing a Hawkeye attack that had gone stagnant after its forceful start.

Beyer’s catch was nearly double the yardage Iowa produced on its three previous drives. It was the crown jewel of Iowa’s early tight-end show, which saw LaPorta, Beyer and Nate Wieting combine for 101 yards on five catches. That accounts for more than 30 percent of the Hawkeyes’ season tight end output.    

“That's what it takes to pull it all together and get a victory,” said Ferentz, whose unit again operated without wide receiver Brandon Smith. “Pretty much everything positive that happened out there was critical to us being successful today.

“There was nothing easy about it.”

Call that a microcosm of Iowa’s 2019 offense. Saturday delivered plenty of familiar elements. Only this time, Iowa at least cashed in its gaudy gains for crucial points in a tight victory.

Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.