Who needs points? And touchdowns? Gaudy extravagances for the less-enlightened to obsess over. Iowa football knows that the secret to success boils down to just two things: a sturdy defense and an indefatigable kicker. On Senior Day Iowa rode that defense and Keith Duncan's never-tiring leg to a 19-10 victory over Illinois. No rapturous odes will be written about this game.
Iowa received the opening kickoff and moved down the field with some big pass plays, highlighted by a 29-yard pass from Nate Stanley to Ihmir Smith-Marsette that set up Iowa at the Illinois 2-yard line. Tyler Goodson punched it in for a touchdown one play later and... that was it for Iowa and the end zone in this game. Iowa made several other trips to the end zone's vicinity, but they failed to cross its border even one more time. Iowa had six drives in the first half that got onto the Illinois side of the field (plus another drive that got to the 50-yard line) and just three of them resulted in points, for a total of just 13 points. Three more Iowa drives got to Illinois territory; they resulted in two field goals and a turnover on downs with the clock winding down. Offensive efficiency in the first half last week was key to Iowa's upset win over MInnesota, but that offensive efficiency -- and ability to score actual touchdowns -- was nowhere to be found this week.
That left Iowa with an anxiety-inducing 13-7 lead at halftime, with Illinois getting the ball first after halftime. Tightening up in the red zone and holding teams to field goals instead of touchdowns and forcing turnover was exactly the recipe for an Illinois upset. They outscored opponents 79-22 in the second halves of their recent winning streak. They nailed the "keep it close" and "don't give up touchdowns" part of their gameplan. But the turnover fairy was not on their side, as the nation's leader in turnover margin finished the game with a -2 turnover margin. An interception on their first possession of the game turned into a doinked Iowa field goal. Another interception on their first possession of the second half ended a drive that had brought them to the Iowa 21-yard line. And a fumble near midfield halfway through the fourth quarter ended up being the dagger, as Iowa was able to drive down and kick (yet another) field goal to restore their two-score lead in the game.
The hero of the day for Iowa was, once again, the defense. Illinois' only touchdown of the game came on a busted coverage by Matt Hankins, but he was able to redeem himself with a third quarter interception (that ended a clear Illinois scoring threat) and some other strong coverage moments in the second half. Kristian Welch had another strong game at the MLB position, racking up a team-high 12 tackles (10 solo), 1.5 TFL, a sack on the game's final play, and that aforementioned crucial forced fumble in the fourth quarter. Welch made some big plays when Iowa's defense badly needed them. A.J. Epenesa finished with no official sacks, but did record five tackles (four solo), 1.5 TFL, and several pressures on the QB. Joe Evans was the only Iowa defensive lineman to record an official sack. Iowa's third sack of the game came from Geno Stone on one of the most perfect blitzes Phil Parker has ever called:
Phil Parker called a very good blitz. pic.twitter.com/uG76Qn45Wk— Go Iowa Awesome (@IowaAwesome) November 23, 2019
That was *chef's kiss*.
It was also a pivotal play, as it came on fourth down and allowed Iowa to take over the ball near midfield at the end of the half. They were able to get close enough for a Keith Duncan field goal which extended their lead from 10-7 to 13-7. Still anxiety reigned because a 6-point lead is not the sort of thing that breeds confidence, especially with the way Illinois was able to the move the ball for much of the game. Illinois finished with 336 yards, including 192 on the ground (4.9 ypc). This was a vintage "bend-but-don't-break" display from the Iowa defense, though, as aside from the blown coverage that led to Illinois' lone touchdown, they kept the Illini from seriously threatening to score points most of the game.
The high-scorer of the game was -- who else? -- Keith Duncan, who drained four field goals. He actually attempted a staggering six field goals in this game, which set a new Iowa single-game record. (The previous record was five, held by Mike Meyer in 2010 and 2012 and Kyle Schlicher in 2004.) His first attempt sadly doinked off the upright and another 47-yard attempt near the end of the first half went well wide. But his other four field goals were all true and gave Iowa points in the only way they were going to score in this game. Duncan's third field goal of the game also gave him 26 on the year, which gave him the Big Ten record for most field goals in a season. After going 4/6 today, Duncan is 27/32 on the season -- with two more games to go. The NCAA record for most field goals in a season is 31 (by Georgia's Billy Bennett in 2003). Just sayin'.
The reason Duncan had so many field goal attempts in this game was because of the consistent inconsistency of the Iowa offense. The only thing that worked for the Iowa offense -- at all -- were big chunk plays in the passing game. Nate Stanley finished with 308 yards on just 18 completions; Iowa averaged 17.1 yards per pass completion in this game. And yet I don't think any Iowa fan who watched that game -- nor even Stanley himself -- would feel like he played a particularly good game overall. He was just 18/35 overall, his worst pass completion rate since going 18/49 in a loss to Penn State last season. And his struggles in this game couldn't be traced back to the offensive line; they gave him clean pockets to work with on a very consistent basis, but Stanley was just frequently... off. His passes had too much zip and went too long on too many occasions. He also threw one of the worst interceptions of his career on a potential Iowa scoring drive in the first half. There was a lot of Bad Nate today. And yet... when we saw Good Nate today, he was often really good, as evidenced by this play he made to elude a tackle and zip a rocket to Ihmir Smith-Marsette downfield.
Nate Stanley's final game in Kinnick Stadium was probably a fitting encapsulation of the Nate Stanley Experience at Iowa: some moments of brilliance, some moments of head-scratching bafflement, and overall good enough play to enable Iowa to win.
As frustrating as Stanley could be at times today, at least Iowa had his ability to get things going through the air because the running game was ERROR: FILE NOT FOUND all game long. After his breakout performance against Minnesota last week and facing an Illinois defense that ranked dead last in the Big Ten in rush defense -- they entered this game worse than Rutgers at defending the run in conference play -- there were many observers (us included!) who expected another big game out of Tyler Goodson. His final tally? 21 carries for 38 yards (a sickly 1.8 ypc average) and that early touchdown. Goodson's lackluster performance was not an indictment of his own play but rather a damning condemnation of Iowa's entire running game. There's not much a running back can do when there are multiple defenders waiting to ambush him as soon as he takes the hand-off. The scheme and the coaching for Iowa's running game are an absolute disaster and have been for basically the entire season. Iowa badly needs to have some intense soul-searching this offseason when it comes to the running game because it is not even close to working.
Very good defense, very frustrating offense... that's been a frequent relationship throughout the last 20 years of Iowa football, although the split between the two units has rarely been as jarring as it is this season. For the seventh time in eight Big Ten games, Iowa held an opponent to under 20 points. That's good! Unfortunately, for the fourth time this season (and the third time in Big Ten play), Iowa scored fewer than 20 points themselves. That's bad. But Iowa's offense certainly is what it is at this point in the season; it's not going to magically improve overnight. Let's end on a high note: Iowa's seniors got to leave Kinnick Stadium with a win (for the second year in a row and the fourth time in the last five years) and Iowa still has a chance to win 10 games this year. That's good -- and beating Illinois is always good. Onward.