Iowa Football

Hawkeyes find oasis amid the rubble of Illinois

Iowa's 63-0 mauling of Illini was reminder things can get way worse

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Oh, the weeping and gnashing of teeth after Iowa’s three-game football losing streak.

Such frustration, such disappointment. Such despair.

But then the Hawkeyes came to Illinois’ Memorial Stadium Saturday, and everyone here saw how low the misery meter can go. Iowa clubbed the Fighting Illini, 63-0, giving them a matching bookend for their 63-0 loss to the University of Chicago in 1906.

“We’re not a good football team right now,” said Illinois Coach Lovie Smith. “There are some scars that will stay with you.”

See, Iowa Fan. It can always get worse. You complain about not having shoes and you meet someone who ... is Illinois Fan.

This is where they’ve had four different head coaches in the last eight years and haven’t had a record as good as 7-6 since 2011. The announced crowd Saturday was 33,313, and Iowa fans helped pad that.

The Illini were piņatas just as they were last year in Iowa City, and the year before when they also got shut out at home. Iowa recorded its second five-game winning streak over the Illini in this millennium, and this millennium still is an infant.

You’re entitled to feel as irritated as you want about Iowa letting the Big Ten West title slip away with consecutive losses of 6, 2 and 4 points. This season is a missed opportunity, the kind that doesn’t often come the Hawkeyes’ way. We’ve covered that ground.

But. At. Least. You. Aren’t. Illinois.

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Iowa scored via pass, via rush, via defense, via special teams. Kyle Groeneweg had a 61-yard punt return for a third-quarter touchdown. The last time a Hawkeye brought back a punt for a score was two years ago. The player? Riley McCarron. The place? This one, of course.

“It’s like a dream come true,” said Groeneweg, a transfer from Division II Sioux Falls. “I remember going to Iowa football games as a senior in high school. I thought it was the coolest thing ever. Playing at Sioux Falls was fun, too, but I can’t be thankful enough to be here playing for this team. I’m having a blast.”

All the Hawkeyes had a blast Saturday, whether it was the D-II transfer, the junior college transfer (Mekhi Sargent, who rushed for 121 yards and two TDs), or the blue-chip high school recruit (defensive end A.J. Epenesa, who did more Saturday than some defenders do all year).

Video: Kirk Ferentz postgame

Read more: The Key West kid, Mekhi Sargent comes to Iowa to fulfill football dreams

How galling it must be for the Illini to have seen Illinois native Epenesa force a fumble on a sack and return it for a touchdown, sack Illini quarterback AJ Bush, and block a punt. All within two minutes!

“It was a pretty fun night,” Epenesa said.

Smith needs an Epenesa or two. He needs a defense, period, instead of the Swiss cheese he’s putting on the field. This was the third time the Illini have allowed 63 points this season. There’s a word for that: Unwatchable.

The Illini are Exhibit A in what happens when you keep hiring coaches who aren’t up to the challenge of lifting a program above fifth place in one of the most mundane divisions in all the Power Five conferences.

Iowa did what teams that are bummed by being 6-4 should do when they face a team like Illinois. The Hawkeyes feasted on the Illini’s shortcomings and killed their spirit. Iowa may have lost three straight games coming in, but it hadn’t forgotten what to do once it got around to meeting lesser competition.

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This game was so good for Iowa that everyone could more or less laugh off the melodrama of the week leading up to it, which was all the talk about the way gifted junior tight end Noah Fant was (or wasn’t) used lately.

Fant played Saturday. He played plenty.

“A little bit, yeah,” Fant said with a little laugh. “It was nice.”

Fant scored the first of Iowa’s nine touchdowns. It was the 19th of his career. Hey NFL, things are all good with him and his coaches. Nothing to see here.

Yes, all the Hawkeyes got fed, be they the running backs, defensive backs, punt returner, tight ends, or the offensive coordinator who made Fant a focal point once again.

Maybe revenge next year, Illini? Uh, probably not. Epenesa has another season left, and he always plays hungry.

l Comments: (319) 368-8840; mike.hlas@thegazette.com

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