CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — First there was New Kirk. This season has been about Soundbite Kirk.
It was Mask-Over-The-Head Kirk in Saturday’s game. Literallty.
TV caught the Iowa football coach readjusting his long, black Hawkeye facemask and leaving it toward the top of his head for a couple of seconds very early in Iowa’s 35-21 win over Illinois at Memorial Stadium. This came after his team had just incurred quarterback Spencer Petras getting sacked on the second play of the game and then having to call a timeout before the third because there were only 10 guys on the field.
An inauspicious beginning, an ugly one that lasted for a little more than a quarter as it turned out, quite befitting Mask-Over-The-Head Kirk. Who would want to watch the way the Hawkeyes were playing?
“It was rough there for a while,” Ferentz said.”
Then Iowa finally began playing the football it has the past month, sidestepping a 14-0 deficit and going on to post its fifth straight victory. The Hawkeyes (5-2) conclude this convoluted, COVID-19 regular season next week at home against Wisconsin, with a champions week encounter against someone, quite possibly Indiana, in two weeks somewhere.
“We knew coming in here that road games are tough,” Ferentz said. “Illinois has been playing good football with two straight wins and looked really good last time out (in a 41-23 win over Nebraska). We certainly had a lot of respect for them. It’s great to leave here with a victory, our fifth straight victory, our fifth Big Ten win.”
Oh, the start of this game for Iowa. Its opening three-and-out was followed by a 70-yard TD drive for Illinois and a quick 7-0 Illini lead.
When receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe’s initially ruled non-catch was reversed by video review into a 12-yard touchdown snag, Illinois went up 14-0 just 1:30 into the second quarter. It was the largest deficit Iowa has faced this season, the first time it trailed at the break since last year’s Holiday Bowl.
“We were not playing good team football,” Ferentz said.
But then everything completely flipped. Iowa’s impotent offense finally got going thanks in part to good field position its revitalized defense kept giving it.
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A Petras-to-Sam LaPorta touchdown was followed by two Keith Duncan field goals, making it a 14-13 game at the half. The Hawkeyes picked up a defensive stop to begin the third quarter and followed with a 70-yard scoring drive of their own to go ahead for good, 21-14.
Iowa’s run reached 35 unanswered points eventually, a streak only ended when Illinois (2-4) got a touchdown against Iowa’s reserves with 24 seconds left.
“Going down 14-0 is never good,” said LaPorta. “We were spinning our wheels, weren’t getting anything going. That first touchdown that jumpstarted us was huge. From there, we just took off.”
The final yardage total was Iowa 424, Illinois 348, with 75 of those yards again coming on the Illini’s final possession.
“Coach Ferentz says it all the time, that we’re at our best when we are playing complementary football,” said Petras. “The defense did a great job of getting us good field position. It kind of got things going. Give credit to our defense, they had a great game. We kind of feed off each other’s energy.”
Iowa hasn’t allowed an opposing team to score 25-plus points against it since Nebraska scored 28 in a 31-28 Iowa win in late November 2018. That’s a streak of 21 consecutive games, the best in the FBS.
“Nothing changed (after the first quarter),” said Iowa defensive end Chauncey Golston. “We just felt like we weren’t playing our best. So we just settled down and came out and played Iowa defense, just like we’re known for. Nothing really changed, we just did things better.”
While stout defense has been a regular, this game had a pair of firsts. LaPorta and fellow tight end Shaun Beyer each secured their first career TDs, catches from a resurgent Petras, who was 18 of 28 for 220 yards and a career-best three touchdowns.
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He also threw a 2-point conversion pass to Tyler Goodson. Ihmir Smith-Marsette had a touchdown catch and run for Iowa. Iowa had 220 yards passing and 204 rushing, which is just about the perfect mix. The wildcat was used regularly on Iowa’s final drive of the game and to real good effect, with Mekhi Sargent and Ivory Kelly-Martin flanking Goodson, all three of them getting carries.
“This offense has evolved, and Coach Brian (Ferentz) has been doing an excellent job of putting in new plays and making ways for us to be an effective offense,” Goodson said.
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