116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — Iowa’s Big Ten West title hopes are alive for another week.
Most of Iowa’s performance wasn’t glamorous. It won’t wow many people. But it was enough for a much-needed 33-23 victory over Illinois on Saturday.
The Hawkeyes’ survival against a pesky Illinois team means Iowa (9-2, 6-2) can go to the Big Ten Championship Game with a win against Nebraska on Friday and a Wisconsin loss to Minnesota next Saturday.
Illinois (4-7, 3-5) had several chances to tie or take the lead in the second half, but Iowa’s defense kept the Illini scoreless on eight of their last 10 drives.
That included Illinois’ drive that started on its own 47-yard line midway through the fourth quarter after the Illini intercepted Iowa’s Alex Padilla.
The Iowa defense forced a four-and-out, though, and Iowa’s offense took precious time off the clock en route to making it a two-possession game with a Caleb Shudak 30-yard field goal.
The Hawkeyes allowed just 64 rushing yards on 25 attempts to an Illinois offense that relies on running the ball.
The defense made another play in the final minutes to remove any doubt. Linebacker Jack Campbell intercepted Illinois’ Brandon Peters and returned it for a touchdown.
He contemplated whether to go down to run off more clock or go to the end zone.
“You guys could see how torn (Campbell) was,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said.
He picked the latter, and Iowa had a 33-16 lead before a quick, 75-yard Illinois touchdown drive made it 33-23.
A penalty-filled Iowa drive earlier in the fourth quarter also gave the Hawkeyes some breathing room.
Three Illini penalties in a two-play span in the fourth quarter helped give the Hawkeyes some breathing room, though.
Two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties moved a punt return that ended on the Illinois 47-yard-line to the Illinois 17-yard-line. Then a roughing-the-passer penalty on the next play gave Iowa a first-and-goal.
Iowa couldn’t find the end zone after two short rushes and one incompletion, but a 29-yard field goal from Shudak gave the Hawkeyes a 10-point lead.
Saturday featured a battle between two of the best kickers in the Big Ten. Shudak and Illinois’ James McCourt combined to attempt eight field goals, six of which came from 45 yards or deeper.
Shudak hit 4 of 5 field goals, only missing an ambitious 57-yard attempt. Ferentz called his decision to go for the 57-yard attempt “probably stupid.”
McCourt, meanwhile, hit all three of his attempts.
Iowa’s rushing attack had one of its better performances of 2021. Excluding a bad snap by the punt unit in the first half, Iowa ran for 201 yards on 51 carries.
Quarterback Alex Padilla, who started despite Spencer Petras’ availability, completed 6 of 17 passes for 83 yards.
It marks his second straight game completing fewer than 50 percent of his passes although his receivers’ six drops didn’t help matters.
“I don’t know if they were perfect throws,” Ferentz said, “but when you don’t make those catches and keep the chains going, it’s just nerving.”
Ferentz did not commit to Padilla as the long-term starter at quarterback after the game.
“We’ll talk about it tomorrow,” Ferentz said. “We got two guys we can win with.”
The Hawkeyes had some help from Charlie Jones on special teams.
The senior sprinted for a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown late in the first quarter.
“It was great blocking, just like how we drew it up,” Jones said.
Jones’ return for a touchdown marked a significant momentum shift after Iowa experienced a nightmarish start to the game. Jones’ touchdown was the start of 17 straight points from the Hawkeyes after falling behind 10-0.
The Illini opened the game with a 12-play, 75-yard drive that lasted more than six minutes and included three third-down conversions.
Then when Iowa faced fourth-and-3 on the opposing 43-yard-line, a low snap from long snapper Luke Elkin got past punter Tory Taylor as the ball dribbled well all the way to the Iowa 28-yard-line.
“Obviously Tory didn’t play baseball in Australia,” Ferentz said. “It’d be great if the snap was a little better too.”
The Illini were in a prime position to take a 14-0 lead. Instead, the Hawkeyes’ defense pulled off a three-and-out, to hold the Illini to three points.
Illinois was without head coach Bret Bielema, who tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this week.
The Hawkeyes were without three of their top defensive backs.
Cornerback Terry Roberts remained out with a bone bruise. Fellow cornerback Matt Hankins has “got a ways to go” before becoming healthy, Ferentz said, and safety Jack Koerner will be “hopefully” back next week.
Saturday’s win marked Iowa’s eighth straight win over Illinois.