The first quarter has typically been one of Iowa's best quarters this season. Iowa had outscored opponents 51-14 in the opening quarter entering Saturday's game with Illinois and they'd used fast starts to good advantage during their current four-game winning streak. So it came as quite a surprise to see Iowa open this game with some of the worst football they've played all season.
The offense was at its most comically inept, managing just 28 yards in three drives, all ending in Tory Taylor punts. The defense, forever the saving grace of Iowa football, wasn't much better; Brandon Peters led Illinois on a scoring drive on their opening possession that was scary in how easy it looked. Illinois punted on their second possession, but their third drive (which began in the first quarter and ended 90 seconds into the second) was another scoring drive that looked uncomfortably easy. With barely 15 minutes played Iowa was down 14-0 to
That 14-0 deficit seemed to light a fire under Iowa, though -- on both ends of the field. The defense stiffened and returned to their usual brilliant selves, forcing six consecutive punts and a turnover on downs from the Illini (not counting the kneel-down before halftime), before conceding a final scoring drive in garbage time, with several backups on the field. Meanwhile the offense first showed moments of its competence and then looked genuinely good -- perhaps as good as it's been all season.
Iowa scored 35 unanswered points after going down 14-0, and while they punted on their first drive immediately following the second Illini touchdown, they kicked it into gear shortly after that. Iowa scored on six of their next seven possessions, including four in a row sandwiched around halftime. Field position played a key role in Iowa's comeback; all three of their second quarter starting drives started around midfield (at the Iowa 48, the Iowa 46, and the Iowa 47). The first scoring drive ended in a touchdown on a sharp pass from Spencer Petras to Sam LaPorta. The second and third scoring drives petered out short of the end zone; first with a 40-yard field goal from Keith Duncan and then with a 27-yard field goal from Duncan right before half.
The second half was more of the same, with the Iowa defense opening the quarter by forcing another Illini punt and the offense putting together its longest drive of the game (to that point), a 9-play, 70-yard series ending with a short pass from Petras to Ihmir Smith-Marsette off a pre-snap end around motion.
Iowa even followed up that slick play with a successful two-point conversion. That's right: Iowa successfully converted a two-point play! 2020 is truly wild.
With the defense now putting the clamps on the Illini and the offense moving the ball with ease (relatively speaking), the rest of the game was more or less academic. Iowa force two more Illinois punts, sandwiched around another Iowa punt, before icing the game with a two-play, 32-yard touchdown drive to go up 28-14. That "drive" was set up by a poor Illinois punt (and a good Charlie Jones punt return) and featured one of Spence Petras' best passes of the season; he absolutely dropped one in a bucket for Shaun Beyer:
About Those Fast Starts...
In hindsight, maybe Iowa's sluggish start in this game shouldn't have been too much of a surprise. While they have outscored opponents 51-14 in the opening stanza, most of that domination has occurred in the friendly confines of Kinnick Stadium. They're 41-0 against teams in the first quarter there, while they were outscored 14-10 in the opening frame in their first three road games. They trailed Purdue 7-0 and Penn State 7-3, while they led Minnesota just 7-0 at the break. This game most resembled that Minnesota win, with a slow start giving way to what ended up feeling like a pretty dominant performance; the biggest difference was that Illinois was able to jump out to a 14-0 lead before Iowa settled into the game.
In Defense Of Spence(r)
We have been critical of Spencer Petras this season and certainly not without cause -- he entered this game completing just 56% of his passes, posting a 5.9 yards per attempt start, throwing four touchdowns against five interceptions, and compiling a QB rating of 107.7 for the year. Those figures all ranked at or near the bottom of the conference. Illinois figured to be an opponent that might allow him to figure things out; they entered the game allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete over 70% of their passes while allowing 8.6 yards per attempt and 11 touchdowns.
Despite facing an ostensibly friendly pass defense, though, Petras had one of his worst starts to a game this season; on Iowa's first four drives (all of which ended in punts) he went 2/4 for 29 yards and was sacked twice and had a pair of one-yard "runs." He looked as unsettled and inaccurate as he's been all year and it was all-but impossible to envision Iowa turning the game around with him playing as badly as that.
But after that dire start, Petras actually looked... pretty good? He finished the game going 18/28 (64%) for 220 yards and a career-high three touchdowns -- and no interceptions or fumbles. He certainly wasn't perfect -- many of his passes still came out little too hot or a bit off-target. But he also threw some of his nicest passes of the season and managed to place the ball in positions where his receivers could a) make the ball without contorting themselves into awkward positions and b) gain yards after the catch. This was a Petras that Iowa could actually win with and not in spite of. Was this a one-game mirage, him taking advantage of one of the Big Ten's worst pass defense? Or was it him finally beginning to turn the corner as a starting quarterback and the leader of Iowa's offense? We should know more after the next two weeks, when Petras will need to navigate pass defenses from Wisconsin and (likely) Indiana that should be much stiffer tests than the Illini. But this was certainly a good performance for him to try and build from.
Run, Run, And Run Some More
Iowa racked up 424 yards in this game, their second-most this season (behind 460 against Purdue) and their third time topping 400 yards this season (they had 405 against Michigan State). They did that with a pretty balanced attack: 220 yards through the air and 204 yards on the ground. The passing game helped Iowa get back into the game in the second quarter, but the running game in the second half is what allowed Iowa to pull away. Tyler Goodson and Mekhi Sargent had 53 yards on 13 carries in the first half; they had 93 yards on 16 carries in the second half. But Iowa also got other players involved in the running game; Smith-Marsette had two carries for 44 yards and scored Iowa's final touchdown of the game on a rush, while Tyrone Tracy, Jr. added a 21-yard run, too.
It was exactly what we'd been begging to see out of the run game in past games: innovation, unpredictability, and explosive plays. It's amazing what happens when you don't just try to force-feed stretch runs to a defense all the time. Iowa used more pre-snap motion, ran out of less predictable formations, and made use of the speed of some of their most talented playmakers (ISM, Tracy). Keep doing that, please.
The high point came late in the fourth quarter, on Iowa's final scoring drive, when Tyler Goodson ran the wildcat on (I believe) five consecutive plays. He ran the ball himself on just two of those plays, otherwise handing off to Sargent, Smith-Marsette, or Tracy in different combinations. It was hilarious to see -- but it was also punishingly effective.
Thank You, Defense
Finally, kudos to the Iowa defense, forever the best and most consistent part of this football team. This wasn't a vintage performance from them by any means (and certainly not compared to what they'd down on their previous two trips to Champaign, both shutout victories for Iowa), allowing two scoring drives that looked uncomfortably easy to start the game and then failing to force a turnover for the first time since... I don't even know when. It's got to be a really, really, really long time, though.
But after that ugly start, they completely locked down the Illinois offense until a final garbage time drive. After giving up 145 yards to Illinois on those two early touchdown drives, they allowed just 47 yards total and four first downs on the next six Illinois drives. All of those drives ended in punts. Many of those drives were so poor that even if they didn't end in turnovers, they set the Iowa offense up with extremely favorable field position. That great field position was a big boost to Iowa's offense in the second quarter, when it badly needed any advantage it could get. The final defensive stats -- 348 yards, 21 points allowed -- won't turn any heads, but the defense provided the platform for Iowa to win this game.... just like it always does.
The standouts were -- who else? -- the defensive line. Chauncy Golston tied for the team lead with 8 tackles, including four solo stops and half a sack. Zach VanValkenburg had five tackles and a team-high two tackles for loss. And Daviyon Nixon, well, he was still kickin' ass and takin' names, just like he has all year. His official numbers -- 5 tackles, 3 solo, 1.5 tackles for loss, 0.5 sacks -- were nice, but as usual his presence was felt far beyond the final numbers. He was at the root of most of the big plays or big stops Iowa's defense forced, either by creating havoc or himself or occupying enough attention to enable teammates to raise hell in his stead.
We're Goin' Streakin'
The win was Iowa's seventh straight in a row over Illinois, the longest winning streak for Iowa over a single opponent in the 22 years of the Kirk Ferentz Era at Iowa. Iowa was undefeated against the Illini in the '10s and they're starting off the '20s in the exact same fashion. You love to see it.
While Iowa beating Illinois has become a comforting routine, the manner of this win was anything but normal. Iowa's not exactly known as comeback kids -- not many teams built around a ball-control offense and a steady defense are -- but this comeback was an especially rare one for the Hawkeyes:
If Iowa holds on here, it will be their first 14-point comeback win since 11/23/2013 vs Michigan.— Matt Benson (@mbenson6) December 5, 2020
And their first 14-point comeback win on the road since 11/03/2007 at Northwestern.
GO COMEBACKS AWESOME.