IOWA CITY — If you believe in this sort of thing, sure, maybe the Hawkeyes needed a bit of an exorcism going into Saturday.
Your head would probably be spinning, too, if you lost the last two weeks the way Iowa did. It was oh so close to magic against No. 4 Penn State. It was out-grunted at Michigan State last week and that left a pit of doubt and an 0-2 Big Ten divot that the Hawkeyes simply needed to play their way out of.
And, yes, during Saturday’s 45-16 victory over Illinois before 69,894 fans at Kinnick Stadium, the Hawkeyes did look, a few times, like a football team falling down the stairs. Midway through the third quarter, Iowa held a 17-13 lead with the Fighting Illini driving to its 20.
You can fall down a few steps of stairs and still catch yourself and make it to the bottom in one piece.
Safety Brandon Snyder’s 89-yard interception return for a touchdown set off a dominant second-half run for the Hawkeyes (4-2, 1-2 Big Ten), who now go into a bye week before traveling to Northwestern (2-3, 0-2) on Oct. 21.
Iowa piled it on with three fourth-quarter touchdowns. Running back Akrum Wadley rushed for 115 yards and a TD. Quarterback Nate Stanley completed 17 of 32 for 247 yards, three TDs and an interception. Iowa’s defense squeezed four turnovers from the Illini (2-3, 0-2), and the offense turned those into 17 points.
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“When you’re not doing what you want to do, I think it’s normal to get frustrated,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “What’s important is how you respond to frustration.”
Wait, wait, wait, Brandon Snyder? Yes, Brandon Snyder.
The junior from Larchwood wasn’t supposed to be here. He suffered a torn ACL during spring practice in April. A ton of mile markers for him in the training room, with doctors and with Iowa’s strength and conditioning staff, Snyder returned 5 1/2 months later.
The vibe going in was basically everyone outside of Iowa football looking at each other and wondering how this was going to work. Quietly and behind the doors of Iowa’s Hansen Performance Center, Snyder just kept piling up training room triumphs and they finally ended up in a healthy left knee.
“I think there are a lot of people in my corner and I think that’s a huge reason I got back,” Snyder said. “It’s not me, it comes down to all of the people around me. I’m so thankful for all of the people who helped me get back, because this moment is priceless.”
Snyder wasn’t the only new face in Iowa’s starting lineup. For the first time in Ferentz’s 19-plus seasons as Iowa’s head coach, the Hawkeyes had a true freshman start at offensive tackle. Mount Vernon’s Tristan Wirfs got the call at right tackle after the Hawkeyes were held at Michigan State to 19 rushing yards (lowest since minus-9 against Ohio State in 2005).
Ferentz has coached offensive lines since the early 1980s, so, yes, he picked out two mistakes Wirfs made, but overall he was satisfied. Wirfs played well enough to move senior Sean Welsh back to right guard, where he’s an all-Big Ten performer.
“We’re kind of just fudging things a little bit with Sean out there (at right tackle),” Ferentz said. “We’re taking a guy who’s a really good football player and maybe minimizing some of his effectiveness. We just felt like coming out of last weekend this was the best thing for us. It gives us the best chance.”
No one Hawkeyes is running out to buy a frame for this one. The Illini rushed for 200 yards and finished with 446 yards total offense. The Hawkeyes had a pair of turnovers and needed an 18-yard gain on a fake punt run by safety Amani Hooker to spur the drive where they took the lead for good at the end of the first half.
They know they’re not all the way there yet.
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“As a competitor, if you came off the field after a game like that completely satisfied, I don’t know how long you’d be doing this or how you made it this far,” defensive end Parker Hesse said. “Speaking for the defense, we know what we’re capable of and we have pretty high standards. When we don’t play up to that, frankly, it is frustrating for us.”
They have a week to think on that and then it’s the six games that will mark this season one way or the other.
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