Iowa Football

Iowa 63, Illinois 0: Snaps for everyone

Most important snap for the Hawkeyes was the three-game losing streak going away

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Noah Fant got snaps. A lot of them. You saw that T.J. Hockenson got snaps. Holy smokes, A.J. Epenesa got snaps.

Every Hawkeye who had a seat on the charter got snaps in Iowa’s 63-0 blowout over Illinois before 33,313 fans Saturday at Memorial Stadium. The victory was head coach Kirk Ferentz’s 150th as Iowa’s coach. The winning margin was the largest of Ferentz’s 20 seasons and Iowa’s largest since 66-0 over Northern Iowa in 1997.

The only snaps Illinois (4-7, 2-6 Big Ten) was ready for were the ones that come with jackets. It probably didn’t want anymore snaps after the Hawkeyes (7-4, 4-4) dumped out a 28-point second quarter in the echo canyon that Memorial Stadium became about 10 minutes into the game.

Nothing Iowa was going to do against Illinois was magically going to correct the facial tic this season has given everyone. The Hawkeyes muscled up and steamrollered a hapless Illinois program that’s sputtering into the abyss. The Hawkeyes did snap their three-game losing streak. That’s all they could take care of Saturday.

Iowa took care of business and now it’s Nebraska week. Since the Huskers joined the Big Ten in 2011, Iowa has made this a rivalry with three consecutive victories and wins in four of the last five. After upsetting Michigan State 9-6, the Huskers started looking forward to Friday.

Game on ... in about a week.

Let’s roll the credits on the Illinois thing.

After a week in which questions came up about the use of Fant, a preseason all-American tight end, in late-game moments, Fant played all of the vital snaps in the first half, when this game was sort of a game.

The junior from Omaha, Neb., ended up with three catches for 54 yards and a touchdown on a team-high five targets. Hockenson caught two passes for 48 yards and two TDs. Hockenson and Fant or Fant and Hockenson — however you want to order them — are among the best tight ends in the country, with both landing on the Mackey Award list last week.

They showed everything they are against Illinois.

Push comes to shove ...

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“I think we’re all really good friends and we want what’s best for the team,” said quarterback Nate Stanley, who completed 13 of 21 for 178 yards, three TDs and an interception. “Everybody gets that.”

Everybody gets that.

“People can say what they want, but my brother and my family helped get me to the point to where I got to college,” said Fant, who played the first 25 snaps of the game. “That’s when they handed off the baton to the Iowa coaches. I feel like they put me on a great start to get to college. Iowa coaches also have done a great job developing me into what I am today.

Video: Kirk Ferentz postgame

“Definitely respect for the game. I always want to learn and get better.”

Everybody gets that.

“We’re all friends,” Hockenson said. “There’s nothing that would diminish that. We’re a close-knit group.”

Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz stuck to his script on this topic.

“I don’t know if there were any major conversations on the thing,” he said. “We’re a better team, obviously, if our tight ends are involved and doing well. He had a good week. The plan worked out well today. It was good seeing him involved and helping our team move. It was a really productive day for him.”

This was Iowa’s second shutout of the season, the most since 1997. The Hawkeyes have held five opponents to season lows in points (Iowa State, Northern Iowa, Indiana, Maryland and Illinois).

Epenesa was the tornado.

Epenesa will probably be some sort of Big Ten defensive player of the week after his titanic sequence in the second quarter. The sophomore from Edwardsville, Ill., forced a fumble, recovered it and returned it 19 yards for a TD. Next series, Epenesa sacked quarterback A.J. Bush on first down and blocked the Illini’s punt on fourth down.

Epenesa disrupted more in that sequence than some defenses do in a season.

“He causes a lot of havoc in practice,” Stanley said. “Maybe not like that.”

What else did Iowa check off?

Running back Mekhi Sargent rushed 17 times for 121 yards and two TDs, becoming the first Iowa back to top 100 rushing yards in a game this season. Running back Toren Young also rushed for 64 yards and a pair of TDs.

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Wide receiver Kyle Groeneweg returned a punt 61 yards for a TD in the third quarter. That was Iowa’s first punt return for a TD since Riley McCarron did it here in 2016.

So, check, check and check. Time for Nebraska.

“That’s the final taste you’re going to have in your mouth for the regular season,” defensive end Parker Hesse said. “You’re going to have to go through all of bowl prep thinking about how you performed. We want to finish the deal the right way.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

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