IOWA CITY — It would be snarky to call the 2019 Iowa footballers Team Field Goal.
No, when you have 27 field goals and 26 touchdowns after 11 games, it isn’t a storybook season. You’re 8-3, but you don’t have a truly great offense, and that’s why you aren’t in the Big Ten title picture entering the season’s final week.
Were it not for Keith Duncan’s games of four field goals against Iowa State, Purdue and Saturday in his team’s 19-10 win over Illinois at Kinnick Stadium, the Hawkeyes could theoretically be 5-6 today.
Hooray for the walk-on. Can you give retroactive scholarship money to people who, you know, helped win games and satisfy customers?
Anyway, the more-appropriate handle for the 2019 Hawkeyes is Team Defense. It isn’t the defense with the most star power in the Kirk Ferentz era, and four other Big Ten teams have allowed fewer yards per game this year.
Over eight conference games, though, the Hawkeyes have allowed a puny 12.5 points per game. That’s the stat you take to the pay window, and Iowa’s defense has been golden. Again Saturday, it bent without as much as a twinge, let alone any breakage.
The Illini came here as the nation’s leader in turnover margin. Iowa had three takeaways to Illinois’ one.
Illinois had a fourth-and-6 at the Iowa 37 with 16 seconds left in the first half. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker called a safety blitz and Geno Stone flew to Illini quarterback Brandon Peters for a 12-yard loss. Iowa used the final 12 seconds to squeeze off a 22-yard pass and 45-yard Duncan field goal for a 13-7 halftime lead and a mood enhancer in the locker room.
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The blitz, Stone said, was “something we always had. (Parker) finally used it. We practiced it since last year. It was pretty cool to call it. I’ve been waiting for it all year.”
Stone and Matt Hankins brought a lot of rock ‘em/sock ‘em. Hankins had an interception and broke up three other passes.
The Iowa defensive linemen were tone setters as usual. “This group,” said junior end A.J. Epenesa after playing what surely was his last home game, “has a lot of heart, a lot of passion for the game. Cedrick Lattimore, Brady Reiff, Amani Jones on the D-line, no one loves the game of football more than those three guys.
“They made it a pleasure to come out and play alongside all of them.”
Freshman end Joe Evans had a sack on Illinois’ final drive. His first career tackle came on Oct. 26. Now?
“He’s got four sacks in like 22 plays,” said Epenesa. “That production is unbelievable.”
“When he comes in, especially at the end of the game,” said fellow Iowa defensive end Chauncey Golston, “he’s revved up and ready to go. I just feel bad for the other quarterbacks.”
Saturday’s last play was symbolic. The game was unwinnable for the Illini at that point, but they’re competitors and were going to take a final shot downfield. Backup quarterback Matt Robinson, in for an injured Peters, got dragged down by Iowa linebacker Kristian Welch. A walk-off sack.
It was Senior Day. Welch, from a town in Wisconsin called Iola that he says has “about four streets there and like five taverns,” is a senior. He has eight more tackles than any other Hawkeye this season though he missed three games to injury. He had a forced fumble and a dozen stops Saturday.
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Asked to describe what makes Iowa’s defense what it’s been, Welch said “Top to bottom, we have guys willing to make plays and sacrifice your body for the rest of the guys that are on the field.
“We talk about that a lot. I’m fighting for the guy next to me. It’s kind of our mentality. And we have fun doing it for each other. That’s what it’s all about.”
Welch is a roommate of Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley, who said this about his team’s defense: “They’re not going to stop, they’re not going to quit. They kept us in a lot of games this year and, quite frankly, won a lot of games for us this year, too.”
Without this defense and Duncan, this is a lost season. Instead, everyone left Kinnick for the last time this year with smiles, and excited for the team’s finishing kick at Nebraska and a bowl site.
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