116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — The eyeball test, as it has been called, says this year’s Iowa football team is good at best.
That depends on your definition of “good.”
The Big Ten standings, however, say Iowa is tied for first place in the Big Ten West at 6-2 (9-2 overall) and can win the West if things break right on the two days after Thanksgiving.
The standings rule, every time. The Hawkeyes got a third-straight victory that was hard on those taking that eyeball test, but good for what any team is ultimately judged on, its number of victories.
Iowa’s 33-23 win over Illinois Saturday at Kinnick Stadium was another game of doing barely enough offensively and more than enough defensively, and getting a heaping helping of special teams help.
Specifically, a 100-yard Charlie Jones kickoff return for a first-quarter touchdown stopped Illinois from feeling good about its early 10-0 lead. Caleb Shudak’s four field goals afterward didn’t hurt, either.
What a year Shudak has had. If you have to replace a guy (Keith Duncan) who was a first-team All-American before he left, get someone who can go 14-of-16, including 4-of-5 Saturday with the only miss from 57 yards out.
The Hawkeyes completed only 6 of their 18 passes, for 83 yards. In 2021. And won. That’s largely because the Illini had 10 possessions that ended without a first down.
Several of Alex Padilla’s passes were dropped. One was intercepted. But none of it ultimately mattered.
Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz has been talking about “November football” all month. November football this November in this county is about as attractive as the road reconstruction where I-80 turns into I-380 and vice versa.
After beating Minnesota at home the previous week despite being outgained by 132 yards, the Hawkeyes were 57 yards behind Illinois this day.
Here’s where we pause to say it again: Iowa is 6-2 in the Big Ten and still in play for the West title, though it needs to beat Nebraska Friday and have Minnesota take down Wisconsin the following day in Minneapolis.
“All we can do is worry about winning Friday,” Ferentz said.
All they could worry after falling from 3-0 to 3-2 was beating Northwestern, Minnesota and Illinois in “November football,” and that’s just what they’ve done. It’s either a credit to one of the craftiest teams in Hawkeye history or an indictment of the rest of the West. Most likely, it’s both. But it’s still 6-2.
“I love this team, the way we just battle,” said Hawkeye safety Dane Belton, who got his fifth interception of the season Saturday.
Belton’s secondary was minus two crucial starters in Matt Hankins and Jack Koerner, got schooled on Illinois’ first possession, and then went back to being the 2021 Hawkeye defense.
“We can overcome any adversity that comes our way,” Iowa running back Tyler Goodson said after his 132-yard rushing effort. “That’s what I love about this team. It doesn’t matter what the outcome is, we’re always going to fight back and continue to fight.”
Not long ago, Iowa couldn’t effectively run the ball. This day, the offense had a paltry 255 total yards, but 172 came on the ground to swallow a lot to eat clock, establish field-position control, and win a game.
It took Jones’ kickoff return to turn a 10-0 hole into 10-7. What looked like something with the potential for a brutally grim day here for the Hawkeyes yielded to that old “It’s a 60-minute game” mentality.
“The bottom line is try to find a way to win,” Ferentz said. Sports jibber-jabber? Maybe. True? For sure.
Find a way to win. The Citrus Bowl had two representatives here. That wasn’t because Ferentz is the ringleader of the Greatest Show on FieldTurf, but because Iowa has found enough ways to win to be bearing down on a 10-win regular season. The Citrus has done far worse.
Of course, Iowa knows it’s guaranteed nothing in Lincoln. It isn’t good enough to begin to assume a win over the 3-8 Huskers given the way each of its last three games were 12-round fights that ended with decisions, not knockouts.
But the Hawkeyes left each one with their arms raised. Somehow.
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