Iowa Football

No. 17 Iowa 19, Illinois 10: Lots of tears, lots of field goals

Hawkeyes defense kept the Fighting Illini in check during an emotional Kinnick farewell for Hawkeye seniors

IOWA CITY — Crying in football is like flu germs on the apples at the grocery store. All it takes is one touch or look and your eyes are sweating.

After he finished his Big Ten Network interview in the wake of the No. 17 Hawkeyes’ 19-10 win over Illinois, Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley jogged toward the tunnel and the locker room. A group in the student section waited for the perfect moment to cheer loudly enough for the Hawkeyes senior quarterback to hear them.

Stanley raised his helmet and the tears already were flowing. They might’ve slowed down some in the postgame, but Stanley wasn’t interested in hiding his emotions.

In this moment, the Menomonie, Wis., native was just a proud senior Hawkeye.

“The student section cheering for all of us when we run off, there’s no better feeling,” said Stanley, who completed 18 of 35 for 308 yards and an interception. “Getting to sing the fight song in the locker room, I’ll never forget it. I can honestly say I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I didn’t choose to come here.”

The eyes were red and some of the words were pinched off by gulps. Stanley hadn’t thought much about it, but it was pouring out at this point in the postgame.

“These are some of the best memories I’ll have,” said Stanley, who turned in his fifth 300-yard game and first this season. “It’s something I’ll be chasing hopefully with future teams or future relationships.”

Saturday was all about getting to the end. Stanley again held together a one-legged offense (the Hawkeyes (8-3, 5-3 Big Ten) had 308 yards passing and 79 yards rushing, and that’s one-legged) and the defense decided field goals were going to be just fine against Fighting Illini (6-5, 4-4) before 58,331 fans at Kinnick Stadium.

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The Hawkeyes had three sacks, two interceptions and kept the game a two-score lead after turning a fumble into Keith Duncan’s 29-yard field goal with 2:44 left in the game.

So yeah, this senior day crying thing is contagious. Junior offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs spent the last three years hip-to-hip with Landan and Levi Paulsen. So, when they started crying during the “Back in Black” walk out of the tunnel, Wirfs lost it.

“I just started bawling,” Wirfs said. “Those guys have done so much for our program along with Stanley. Seeing them go ... it’s sad. You’re with these guys pretty much 365 days a year and now we won’t.”

The Hawkeye Paulsens: From Climbing Hill, Iowa, to Kinnick Stadium

It’s a good thing Keith Duncan is a junior. A senior leg might not have been able to keep up with the workload Saturday.

Duncan connected on 4 of 6 field goals (23, 45, 24 and 29) and broke the Big Ten single-season record with 27 made field goals this season.

Yes, Duncan heard the Kinnick crowd boo one of those times. He knows you want touchdowns and not field goals, but Duncan is going to kick them all the same, because, you know, that’s his job.

“We’re putting points on the board, why are you guys upset?” said Duncan, who’s now 27 of 32 this season. “It made it a two-possession game. We should be cheering, right?”

You guys, he’s right. A two-score lead was always going to work Saturday.

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“We’ve come a long way,” Illinois head coach Lovie Smith said. “All of you were there probably when we played the same team (last season, a 63-0 Iowa victory at Illinois). A year later, we haven’t gotten over the hump yet. Got to be able to run the football and stop the ball.”

The Illini, who did finish with 192 rushing yards, had one drive in the fourth quarter with a chance to overcome a 16-10 deficit. Senior linebacker Kristian Welch knocked the ball out of Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters and safety Jack Koerner recovered. Iowa scored on the ensuing drive and that pretty much closed the books.

“If you want to be the best you can be, you can never say ‘I’m really happy with where I’m at right now,’” said defensive end A.J. Epenesa, who had 1.5 tackles for loss and forced a fumble. “You always have to be a little downer, a little negative. Not negative or down, I guess, but critical.”

Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz kept it together. Ferentz and his wife, Mary, even stood in for Devonte Young’s parents during the senior day walk. Made it through that OK.

The eyes reddened and the voice shook a bit on the topic of Stanley.

“He’s a high-integrity guy,” Ferentz said. “Mental toughness, physical toughness, all those things you hope you find in a football player he’s got them, and he’s all about the team, and he has been right from day one.”

It might take the Hawkeyes some time to get over this win. Senior day tears and all of those field goals, everyone went for a bit of an emotional ride Saturday.

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

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