• Travis Thornburgh

Game Recap: Illinois Fighting Illini

Initial Takeaways:

- There should be plans to revamp the running game in the very near future. That transformation may not happen before the bowl game or if that is an offseason problem, but the Iowa running game has to be better.

- The Iowa defense was yet again exceptional at keeping their opponent out of the endzone, despite allowing a ton of yards to a much improved Illinois offense.

- The Iowa defense continued to show improvement in one of their few weaknesses, recording 3 takeaways.

- I haven't been able to find a replay of the Geno Stone hit from Illinois' second to last drive, but seeing it on the video board in Kinnick, it didn't seem like targeting. There is an argument to be made that it should have been roughing the passer or late hit, but not targeting.

- The offense's ability to avoid the costly turnover against Illinois was impressive against a defense that was averaging nearly 3 takeaways per game.

- Keith Duncan continued to be one of the biggest storylines of this Iowa season, breaking the Big Ten record for field goals made in a season. With his 27 made field goals, Duncan needs just 4 more in the next two games to tie the all-time Division 1 record.

- Senior day is always a special day, but to see Kirk and Mary Ferentz meeting Devonte Young, whose parents couldn't make it, at midfield was one of the coolest senior day moments I can remember.

- Despite it being an ugly, close victory, this win over Illinois keeps the hopes of a 10 win season alive.

Views From the Corner of Kinnick

In a lot of ways, this game was a microcosm of the 2019 Iowa Football season. The offense did just enough to beat a team that they should have beaten, and the defense continued to hold opponents out of the endzone. Nate Stanley continued to shine in a senior campaign that is being largely underappreciated due to the struggles of the offense as a whole. Most importantly, Keith Duncan converted enough field goal attempts that Iowa nearly doubled up their opponent and a win is a win in November, no matter how ugly.

Iowa had a promising start, marching down the field on a 9 play, 75 yard touchdown drive fueled largely by the right arm of Nate Stanley and capped by a Tyler Goodson 2 yard touchdown plunge. Iowa was in a position to jump all over the Illini when Michael Ojemudia picked off Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters on just the third offensive play, setting up Iowa at the Illinois 43. The offense couldn't capitalize comin up empty after Keith Duncan missed a 43 yard field goal attempt. Illinois took advantage, putting together a 6 play, 75 yard touchdown drive that took under two minutes off the clock. The next four possessions, two by each team, ended in punts before Iowa got on the board again, this time on the strength of 10 play, 70 yard drive capped by a Keith Duncan field goal. Iowa forced an Illinois punt to get the ball back to Nate Stanley and company. The Iowa offense looked to have something going after moving the ball into Illinois territory, but Nate Stanley sailed a throw over the middle that fell into the waiting arms of an Illinois defender. The defense continued to be the eraser of offensive mistakes, forcing an Illinois 3 and out. Iowa had something cooking again, but Nate Stanley missed on consecutive plays to set up another Keith Duncan field goal attempt. Duncan would again missed, leaving the score at 10-7 nearing halftime. Illinois put pressure on Iowa, driving down to the Iowa 37 to set up a 4th and 6. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker brought an all-out blitz and Geno Stone forced a 14 yard sack to set up the Iowa offense near midfield. On the next play, Nate Stanley connected with Tyrone Tracy for 22 yards to set up 45 yard Keith Duncan field goal attempt to end the half. Duncan would hit and push the Iowa halftime lead to 6 at 13-7.

Illinois came out of the locker room firing, putting together a 51 yard drive, setting up Illinois to take a shot at the endzone. Fortunately for Iowa, Matt Hankins was there to pick off the pass and end the Illinois threat. The next possession saw an Iowa punt before Illinois looked to be in business again after putting together a 12 play, 54 yard drive, but a missed field goal left the Illini empty-handed. The teams would then exchange field goals on consecutive 60+ yard drives before an Iowa punt. The ensuing drive saw Illinois moving the ball again, but the Iowa defense stiffened near midfield and forced the third Illini turnover of the day, this time a fumble. Iowa would cash in with another Keith Duncan field goal, his fourth of the day and 27th of the year. The Illinois drive that followed saw Illinois attempting to mount a comeback, with an incompletion coming on 1st down and a short scramble coming on 2nd. The 3rd down of this has been the center of much discussion. Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters rolled to his right, looking for an open target, but was unable to make a completion. After he let go of the pass, his momentum carried him into a collision with Geno Stone. In live action, it appeared that the hit should have been flagged, but the officials reviewed the play and found no targeting foul occurred. The in-stadium replay appeared to show that as well. It appeared that Stone tried to avoid the collision, making contact to the quarterback's chest and much of the contact to Stone's helmet was to the backside of it, eliminating the possibility of forcible contact. I have been unable to find a replay showing the play, but that was what it looked like on the in-stadium replay. Brandon Peters was knocked out of the game on the play and the Illini turned the ball over on downs. Iowa would return the favor, turning the ball over on downs trying to run as much time off the clock as possible. Illinois gained possession of the ball again, with around 1:30 left in the game. Illinois converted one first down, but the game would fittingly end with senior linebacker Kristian Welch sacking the quarterback to run out the clock on Senior Day.

All told, Iowa emerged victorious in over a much improved Illinois Fighting Illini team by a score of 19-10.

In a lot of ways, this game was a return to form for what we have come to expect from the 2019 edition of the Iowa Hawkeyes. The defense was exceptional when it needed to be, allowing a ton of yards between the 30's, but holding yet another opponent to their season low in scoring. The offense didn't make any critical mistakes and didn't allow the Illinois defense to hurt them by giving up a defensive touchdown. The rushing attack was again anemic, but Nate Stanley covered for them by throwing for 300 yards for the first time this year.

Despite being largely held in check, the Iowa running game had some flashes throughout the game. Nate Stanley continued to show that when his team needs him, he can tuck the football and run, running 4 times for 22 yards. Tyler Goodson wasn't consistent on Saturday, but showed power on his 2 yard touchdown run on the first drive of the game and showed a little bit of explosiveness in a couple of 8+ yard runs. Goodson just couldn't consistently find the hole and too often was tackled behind the line of scrimmage. It would appear that Tyler Goodson is the running back of the future as well, as he had 21 touches compared to 4 combined touches for Toren Young and Mehki Sargent.

Nate Stanley continued to be the brightest part of the Iowa offense this year, racking up over 300 passing yards for the first time this season. Throughout the game, Stanley was making athletic plays with his arm and legs, and made only a handful of mistakes. The one concerning thing to emerge from the day for Nate was that late in each half, he struggled to find his release point, and on a number of occasions overthrew his intended target, including the interception he threw in the first half. It will become apparent this week if those overthrows were weather related, as it would make sense that his hands would get cold as the halves wore on, or if they were just driven by Senior Day nerves and jitters.

Among the most impressive moments of Nate's day was his completed pass to Sam LaPorta on the first drive. He threaded the needle between two Illini defenders and made an NFL level throw to a well covered tight end. If he had thrown the ball a half second earlier, he would have missed his receiver. A second later, he throws it directly into the waiting arms of two Illini defenders. Another big moment came a few drives later, where Illinois had him dead to rights in the backfield. Nate proceeded to break out of an arm tackle, roll to his left, and fire a laser across his body to a well covered Ihmir Smith-Marsette for a 20+ yard gain. It was very reminiscent of the touchdown he threw against Ohio State with Sam Hubbard hanging around his ankle.

Iowa's receiving corps continued to excel in the absence of Brandon Smith and a competent run game. Nate completed passes to 7 different pass catchers, with Ihmir Smith-Marsette leading the way at 121 yards and Tyrone Tracy leading the way with 6 catches. All three contributing tight ends caught passes, while Tyler Goodson added a catch as well. This pass catching group continues to live up to the hype as one of the best pass catching groups of the Kirk Ferentz Era.

Ultimately, this game was a regression to the mean after an impressive first half against Minnesota. Illinois was committed to stopping the run, and Nate Stanley was able to shoulder the load and produce just enough offense to upend the Fighting Illini. Iowa may be able to survive against Nebraska without a run game, but will need to find some answers during bowl preparation to springboard into the future. Whether that is throwing to open up the run, changing the blocking scheme, or running out of non-traditional sets, something has to change.

On the other side of the ball, what more can be said about this Iowa defense that hasn't already been said a dozen times? This unit continues to be the bell cow for Iowa and continues to be so impressive at bending and not breaking. Iowa gave up over 300 yards of offense to Illinois, but only allowed 10 points. They forced Illinois to 3rd down 15 times, and on 10 of them got a stop. They forced 3 takeaways and helped Iowa to a +2 turnover margin. They have done everything short of scoring points for Iowa this year, and they continued that streak on Saturday.

On a day where Desmond King was in attendance as the honorary captain, the defensive secondary did their best King impressions, limiting the Illinois offense to just 144 yards passing and forcing two interceptions of Brandon Peters. The defensive secondary was solid in run support and had a hand in a number of quarterback pressures and sacks. This game may have been the best to date for what has been a banged up secondary for most of the season.

Coupled with a solid performance from the defensive secondary, this was a huge step forward for the defensive line as well. This defensive line has leaned hard on the likes of A.J. Epenesa, Chauncey Golston, and Cedrick Lattimore, but there's some depth developing behind those starters. Joe Evans is going to be a problem moving forward for Big Ten offenses and Jon Waggoner, Zach VanValkenburg, and Daviyon Nixon have all shown flashes this season and should only improve an already stout defensive line in the final two games of the season.

Iowa's special teams continued to be impressive, with the biggest splash being made by new Big Ten record holder Keith Duncan. Despite missing two field goals early, Duncan recovered and came through with a much needed 12 points to supply the difference in the game. Michael Sleep-Dalton continued to be an unsung hero of this year, downing 2 of his 4 punts inside the Illinois 20 and continuing to be a dependable option when the Iowa offense falls short outside Keith Duncan's range. It should be noted that Keith Duncan finds himself 4 field goals short of the NCAA record for makes in a single season. With the inconsistency that the offense has shown throughout the year, he has a legitimate chance to break that record.

I expected an Iowa offensive explosion. Instead, we got a defensive struggle that saw Iowa flipping the script on the nation's best turnover-forcing defense. The Iowa offense did just enough to give the defense a cushion and the defense sealed the victory by bending and not breaking. Iowa continues to search for answers in the running game, while Nate Stanley is quietly having one of the better seasons of any quarterback in the Big Ten this year. Nate Stanley continues to grow as an athlete and is continuing to do what his team needs to win. No matter how ugly it got at times, a win is a win, and the Hawks now have a chance at a 9th victory on Black Friday.

Travis's Player of the Game: Keith Duncan - 4 made field goals on 6 attempts, with makes of 23, 45, 24, and 29. Broke the Big Ten record for makes in a single season

Up Next: The Nebraska Cornhuskers at 5-6 (3-5 in the Big Ten) will host a Black Friday matchup at 1:30 P.M. inside Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska. The game will be televised on BTN.

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As always, On Iowa! and Go Hawks!

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About Travis

A lifelong Hawkeye fan and a 2017 graduate of the University of Iowa in Civil Engineering, Travis now calls Des Moines, Iowa home and continues to passionately follow University of Iowa athletics

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