Iowa football instant analysis: Another ugly, but satisfying, win for the Hawkeyes vs. Illinois
IOWA CITY — Once again, all eyes were on Iowa's backfield for its Saturday contest against Illinois. Now-starting quarterback Alex Padilla made his second career start and the injured Spencer Petras returned from injury but in a backup capacity.
Fans anxiously anticipated what Padilla's next start would hold. His modest 6-for-17 line for 83 passing yards did enough to help the Hawkeyes to a 33-23 win over Illinois to improve to 9-2, but an underperforming, highly scrutinized area of offense is really what made the difference.
The ground game.
Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz spoke extensively about the struggling rush offense leading up to Saturday. In his own words, the best remedy to right the ship was "more experience, better play-calling and better execution." All three of those elements came together for the majority of Saturday's game and paced Iowa just enough to win the game.
The raw numbers, 174 total rushing yards and 3.4 yards per carry, won't blow fans away but one big play, a botched punt early in the game, resulted in a 30-plus yard loss against their run total. A look at what Iowa's ball-carriers did directly is a better measuring stick:
►Tyler Goodson: 27 carries, 132 yards, 4.9 yards per carry
►Gavin Williams: 10 carries, 56 yards, 5.6 yards per carry
►Arland Bruce IV: 4 carries, 23 yards, 5.8 yards per carry
Bruce, a receiver, hasn't been a big part of Iowa's rush offense this year but his designed end-around plays represent Brian Ferentz looking for new ways to move the ball on the ground.
Down the stretch, up 23-16 with 5:37 remaining, Iowa pounded the ball for the game-sealing score. Goodson and Williams combined for 37 carries for 188 yards with Caleb Shudak knocking in a 30-yard field goal to make it a two-possession game.
As far as the experience that Brian Ferentz was referring to, the offensive line had a third straight quality performance. For the second consecutive week, the same five linemen played wire-to-wire and helped the team dominate time of possession while only allowing one sack.
Special teams greatly impacted the game too.
Early on, Iowa found itself down 10-0. Needing an answer, wide receiver Charlie Jones returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown. From that point on, Iowa outscored Illinois 26-13. And Iowa's top point scorer of the day, senior kicker Caleb Shudak, went 4-for-5 on field goal attempts.
Defensively, "The Standard" returned despite missing two starters: defensive backs Matt Hankins and Jack Koerner. Over the past few weeks, opposing teams have had success running the ball on the Hawkeyes. Illinois entered the game with the Big Ten's fifth-best attack and tried the same strategy.
Iowa allowed only 64 yards in the game and 2.6 yards per carry. But the most important stat of all is its third-down defense and how it affected Illinois' game plan.
In its three Big Ten wins this year, Illinois converted 45.8% of third downs and as a result only passed on average 16 times per game. In losses, only 27.75% and 26 pass attempts per game.
Saturday's result: 4-for-16 (25%) and the last-ranked pass offense completed 16 of 36 passes for 248 yards and two interceptions, including a Jack Campbell pick-six with a little over one minute remaining.
The Hawkeyes' slow start gave fans flashbacks to last year's season opener against Purdue, when Iowa lost to a team without its head coach. As the game unfolded, the classic formula of running the ball effectively and playing good defense and special teams delivered the ninth win of the season.
Wisconsin result notwithstanding, the Hawkeyes handled their business to give them a chance to play for a Big Ten West title. Also, a 10-win season is on the table, a lot to play for (and be thankful for) in the season finale against Nebraska.
Kennington Lloyd Smith III covers Iowa Hawkeyes football and men's basketball for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.