The Takeaway: Illinois

By Adam Jacobi on November 21, 2016 at 10:00 am
Matt Nelson eats when Matt Nelson wants.
Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Sure, Iowa just blanked Illinois, 28-0. But how much do we really know? What was so important about beating the Illini? What does it all mean, Basil? The Takeaway has the answer.

It's the defense, stupid.

Iowa moves to 7-4 (5-3) after Saturday's win, something we really didn't expect to write after Penn State delivered that demolition in Happy Valley two weeks prior. A bid to the Holiday Bowl is firmly plausible now, and San Diego sounds mighty nice for a holiday destination, don't you think?

The Hawkeyes got to this point by going back to a familiar script: lining up and beating the hell out of the opposing offense. This was Iowa's eighth-best two-game stretch of total defense in the Kirk Ferentz era, and the fourth-best involving two Big Ten teams. Check out the list—some of Iowa's greatest hits are prominently involved:

  • 324 (177 vs. Ohio State, 147 at Penn State) - 2004
  • 338 (235 vs. Northern Illinois, 103 vs. Syracuse) - 2007 
  • 346 (110 vs. Kent State, 236 vs. Iowa State) - 2004
  • 356 (201 vs. Minnesota, 155 vs. Georgia Tech) - 2009
  • 361 (185 at Ohio State, 176 vs. Penn State) - 2003
  • 374 (209 vs. Western Michigan, 165 at Minnesota) - 2013
  • 386 (171 at Michigan, 215 vs. Wisconsin) - 2002
  • 399 (201 vs. Michigan, 198 at Illinois) - 2016

That's rarified air, and the Hawkeye defense should wear that as a badge of honor going into the season finale against Nebraska.

Josey Jewell racked up 10 tackles in the Illinois win and further cemented his place atop Iowa's list with 105; he's one tackle off the Big Ten lead now, behind Indiana's Tegray Scales. Remember, that's with essentially one full game missed after that targeting call against Miami. Jewell's the focal point of the Iowa defense, and he fills the role beautifully. Jewell's got a decision waiting for him during the offseason; he's a junior, but the NFL awaits him. Another year of grooming and adding strength would benefit him, and luckily Iowa's got one hell of an S&C program to get him there. 

Senior safety Anthony Gair has been a revelation in the absence of Miles Taylor, who was out after missing all but the first two plays of the Michigan game. Gair had eight tackles Saturday to go with the seven he registered against the Wolverines; those two games have raised his career tackle total in his four years at Iowa from 30 to 45. He's been the hammer Iowa needed at strong safety, and his angles and decision-making appear to be solid. Kind of a shame we're only getting him for a couple more games, isn't it? 

Jaleel Johnson added 1.5 tackles for loss; he leads the team with 10 TFLs on the season, and that's the kind of production that'll make him every bit as attractive of an NFL prospect as predecessor Carl Davis was. Johnson only had four tackles on Saturday, but he came up with a sack on a crucial 3rd and 5 early in the game, when Illinois was threatening to get into field goal range at Iowa's 34. The sack forced a punt, and the Illini would get no closer to the end zone until the game's last drive. That's a tone-setter right when Iowa needed it the most Saturday.

And of course, Manny Rugamba has been out of his mind at left cornerback. Rugamba, a true freshman (perhaps you've heard), didn't deflect any passes on Saturday but did make seven tackles, third-best on the team. Once Greg Mabin was hurt, opposing teams must have thought Rugamba was an easy target; that, clearly, has changed. Rugamba did a great job in limiting his receiver's window for catches. He's still got room to grow, but Rugamba looks like the next in Iowa's lineage of badass, NFL-caliber cornerbacks. Regardless of whether Tommy Armstrong or Ryker Fyfe is at quarterback for Nebraska this Saturday, Rugamba will have opportunities to make some big plays.

What more can we say? That was a butt-whooping. It brought us #NoKickoffs. It probably felt as good for the players as it did for us, the fans. And it takes us to the doorstep of what could be one hell of a Senior Day, if the defense keeps this work up for one more game.

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