Leistikow's 5 thoughts off Iowa's 35-21 win at Illinois: Hollering Hawkeyes create comeback energy

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — With the press-box windows open at near-empty Memorial Stadium on Saturday, the amount of noise coming from the opposite sideline — from the guys wearing black and gold — was impossible to miss.

Impact plays, whether it was by the offense or defense or special teams, were routinely followed by hooting and hollering from Iowa players.

The defense yelped for the offense. The offense returned the favor. Everyone got excited for the special teams, be it a tackle on kick coverage or a Charlie Jones punt return. Or even a punt.

“If we go three-and-out and Tory Taylor puts one down inside the 5, we’re going to be hooting and hollering," tight end Sam LaPorta said. "If we play complementary football and we’re always hyped up on the sideline and getting each other going, it’s going to be a good game for the Hawkeyes.”

The Hawkeyes got down on the scoreboard Saturday, by two touchdowns, but not on themselves. They had to create their own energy in their seventh game of this unusual 2020 season. And they brought the passion and the comeback thunder in a 35-21 win against Illinois that extended their winning streak to five games after an 0-2 start.

Iowa players celebrate their 35-21 win against the Illini.

“There’s no fans," defensive end Chauncey Golston said. "When big stuff happens, we’ve got to create our own energy."

And that’s seven wins in a row against the Illini and 12 out of 13 in the series.

“Just really proud of our guys. I think maybe we thought it was going to start at 3:30," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz quipped, regarding the 2:40 p.m. kickoff. "That was a rough 15, 20 minutes to watch, that’s for sure. But the guys stuck together. I’m happy for the way they responded.”

After a slow start, Spencer Petras connected on 15 of his final 21 passes and finished 18-for-28 for 220 yards and a career-high three touchdowns — his best game of the season.

The Hawkeyes had just 45 first-half rushing yards but finished the game with 204, a demonstration of their eventual ownership of the line of scrimmage. Tyler Goodson led the way with 19 carries for 92 yards; Mekhi Sargent added 10 for 54.

Iowa (5-2) went turnover-free on offense and deflated the upset-minded Illini (2-4).

“The offense started off pretty slow," receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette said. "But we knew all we had to do was stick to the game plan and it would come.”

Once 60 minutes were complete, it was a performance worth hollering about.

"Our team has a good vibe. And that’s across the ball, not just position to position," Ferentz said. "These guys like each other. They’re having fun right now. I think they’re really proud of what they’ve accomplished the past five weeks."

The return of the Wildcat put this game away.

Iowa ran zero snaps out of its Wildcat formation in last week’s win against Nebraska, a departure from the new toy offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz has found.

But on Saturday, the formation that takes Petras out of the game and puts Goodson at quarterback returned with a vengeance.

The first time it was tried, Goodson gained 10 yards in the first quarter on third-and-2. A 4-yard Goodson Wildcat keeper on third-and-2 in the second quarter fueled Iowa’s first touchdown.

Later, with Iowa leading 28-14 with about five minutes to go in the fourth quarter, Brian Ferentz went with the Wildcat for five consecutive snaps — and Goodson ran it to near-perfection. A well-executed reverse out of the formation spurred a 31-yard run to the right for Smith-Marsette. Later, a Goodson give to Tyrone Tracy Jr. gained 21 yards to the left.

And to finish, Iowa used a traditional jet sweep (its first of the game) to Smith-Marsette for a 13-yard touchdown with 1:56 to go — capping a run of 35 unanswered points and a 10-play, 88-yard drive. 

“It keeps the defense off balance," Goodson said. "They don’t know who’s getting the ball. It could be either me, Ivory (Kelly-Martin), Mekhi, Ihmir … it doesn’t matter. Coach Ferentz does a great job finding ways to get the ball in playmakers’ hands.”

Smith-Marsette said the Wildcat wrinkle is a credit to Goodson's ability to be a quarterback and establish good timing with center Tyler Linderbaum.

“Once you get that part down, everything falls into place," Smith-Marsette said. "T-Good is good at reading defensive ends and linebackers. … Handing the ball off to other people is not that hard.”

What a difference good field position makes.

The Hawkeyes had been dying to get Smith-Marsette going in the kick-return game, and he got back-to-back opportunities in the first quarter … but only ran the first kick out to the 15-yard line. That began a downward trend of poor field position, as the Hawkeyes’ average starting position for their first four drives was their own 14½-yard line.

Meantime, Illinois used the (figuratively) tilted field to roll up a 14-0 lead. Then, a 7-yard tackle for loss by Zach VanValkenburg to start Illinois’ fourth drive began to tilt the field the other way. That led to a three-and-out. And Iowa’s final three drives of the first half began at their own 48, own 46 and own 47. Lo and behold, the Hawkeyes converted all three opportunities into points — and cut their halftime deficit to 14-13.

“Coach Ferentz talks about it all the time, but when we’re at our best, we’re playing complementary football. The defense did its job and got us good field position," Petras said. "… That was a huge turning point in the game.”

The value of good field position was amplified one week earlier, as Iowa was outgained by Nebraska but started 11 of its 12 possessions at its own 30-yard line or better in a 26-20 win.

Brandon Smith plows into Illinois' defense for a season-high five catches for 58 yards.

Brandon Smith’s best day of the season pushed him past 1,000 yards for his Iowa career.

The senior wideout had been mostly quiet this season despite being the team’s top “X” receiver. In fact, it’s been downfield run-blocking that had garnered Smith his most acclaim through six games of 2020. He entered the game with 15 catches for 143 yards, with a long of just 16 yards. He had three catches in each of five games; zero in another.

But on Saturday, Smith was a go-to target throughout the game and collected season-highs (and team-highs) of five receptions for 58 yards. A 19-yarder (his longest of the season) on Iowa’s first drive of the third quarter converted a second-and-8 and set up the go-ahead TD toss to Smith-Marsette.

Smith now has 88 career catches for 1,011 yards and nine TDs.

Poor clock management might’ve cost Iowa four points at the end of the first half.

A 21-yard pass from Petras to Shaun Beyer pushed Iowa to the Illinois 4-yard line with 30 seconds left before halftime. But the Hawkeyes foolishly spent their final timeout then and there, forcing Petras into a virtual pass-only situation. And he chucked three balls out of bounds that had zero chance of being caught, and Iowa settled for a short Keith Duncan field goal.

What should’ve happened there instead: Iowa hurries (but doesn’t panic) on its way to the line of scrimmage, with the clock stopped temporarily after Beyer’s first down. Call a play at the line of scrimmage; even if the snap doesn’t come until 20 seconds remain, that’s OK. A running play that doesn’t make the end zone, then use your last timeout with roughly 15 seconds left. An incomplete pass (or completion out of bounds), and you save the timeout. Not having a viable running threat seemed to doom Iowa’s first-and-goal play-calling. Smith-Marsette was demonstratively upset on the sidelines after that three-play sequence.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.