#17 Iowa 33, Illinois 23: In Special Teams We Trust

By RossWB on November 20, 2021 at 8:04 pm
go hawks go
© Bryon Houlgrave/The Register / USA TODAY NETWORK
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It's been true most weeks this season, but it's really true this week: Brian Ferentz owes LeVar Woods a damn steak dinner. And a good steak dinner, too, not like an Applebee's steak dinner. Because once again Iowa's special teams absolutely bailed out the offense and was a key factor in Iowa's ultimate victory. 

Touchdowns by Iowa offense: 1
Touchdowns by Iowa defense: 1
Touchdowns by Iowa special teams: 1

Or put another way... 

Points by Iowa offense: 6
Points by Iowa defense: 6
Points by Iowa special teams: 21

As a team, Iowa had 255 yards of offense in this game. Charlie Jones had 162 yards by himself on kickoff and punt returns. While the offense moved into scoring position (or at least scoring-ish position, if were just looking at their trips into the Illinois half of the field) often enough, those drives mostly bogged down, which resulted in five field goal attempts, four of which were converted by Caleb Shudak. (And the one he missed was a career-long 56-yard try.) The only scoring drive Iowa's offense actually finished with a touchdown covered seven plays and 50 yards at the end of the first quarter and into the first minute of the second quarter. That drive was an Arland Bruce IV showcase, with Bruce recording a 15-yard run and a 28-yard reception before finishing the drive with a 2-yard run on a jet sweep. 

That drive gave Iowa a 14-10 lead, their first lead in the game and one they would not relinquish over the remaining two quarters and change. That drive was also part of a 17-0 scoring binge by Iowa that flipped the game from a potential upset bid for the Illini (seeking their first win over Iowa since 2008 and their first win in Iowa City since 1999) to the same result we've seen time after time in this series: yet another Iowa victory.

Iowa won the toss to start the game and (surprisingly) deferred, giving the Illini the first crack with the ball. Illinois made the most of that opportunity and put together their best drive of the day, driving 75 yards on 12 plays in 6:23 and finishing it off with a 13-yard Brandon Peters touchdown pass. Peters was 6/7 on the opening drive and looked shockingly competent; Illinois entered this game with the worst passing offense in the Big Ten (by far), but you wouldn't have been able to tell that based on their first drive. Iowa's defense frankly looked utterly lost and a step slow for that entire drive, which was a foreboding start to the game. It didn't get better a few minutes later when Iowa's punt attempt went awry on a bad snap and a mishandle by Tory Taylor that gave Illinois the ball on the Iowa 28 (actually they Iowa 43 after a tripping penalty). Iowa's defense stood firm, though, and held Illinois to a 46-yard field goal try. That made the score 10-0, which was concerning, but still better than a possible 14-0 deficit. 

Things flipped back in Iowa's favor on the ensuing kickoff, when Charlie Jones finally did what he'd been threatening to do all season: take a return all the way to the house. 

Jones sliced through Illinois' coverage team from one end zone to the other, covering a full 100 yards on the field. It was an electrifying return and precisely the sort of big play Iowa needed to get themselves back into the game. After the defense forced another three-and-out, the Iowa offense put together that aforementioned 7-play, 50-yard touchdown drive and in a matter of minutes Iowa had flipped a 10-0 deficit into a 14-10 lead. Things were great! 

And then the long slow death march of kicking began. 

Iowa's defense forced yet another three-and-out and while Iowa's offense traveled 58 yards, they stalled out at the Illinois 33-yard line. Fortunately, Caleb Shudak bailed them out by drilling a 51-yard field goal with distance to spare. Field goal numero uno.

Illinois responded with a field goal of their own to cut the lead to 17-13, but Iowa regained the ball with three minutes to go in the half. Ideally, in this situation, you'd like to see the offense post a score before halftime and then add another score out of halftime after getting the ball to start the second half. In theory Iowa could have scored two touchdowns without Illinois' offense ever touching the ball, gone up 31-13 and effectively ended the game as a competitive affair. That's the ideal scenario, though. That scenario is not in play with this Iowa offense; they went eight yards on three plays and ate up almost two minutes of clock. They even got a do-over when Illinois threw an interception on their own side of the 50; alas, Iowa's offense gained all of two yards and had to settle for a missed 57-yard field goal try. 

Iowa did score out of halftime, but it was -- what else? -- a field goal. An 11-play, 48-yard drive stalled out at the Illinois 30, but Caleb Shudak drained a 48-yard field goal attempt to restore Iowa's seven-point lead. Field goal numero dos. 

Iowa and Illinois traded punts on their next four possessions before the penalty monster took a big bite out of Illinois. A so-so punt was set to give Iowa starting field position around midfield... but not one, but two different unsportsmanlike conduct penalties on Illinois (on the same play!) gave Iowa starting field position at the Illinois 17. Which got even better on first down when Iowa tried and failed to run the Philly Special play with Nico Ragaini attempting to pass the ball back to Padilla... except Illinois got nailed for roughing the passer (Ragaini). Which gave Iowa a first down at the Illinois 8. 

Could Iowa score a touchdown on a drive starting just eight yards from the end zone? Reader, you already know the answer to that question and it is LOL NOPE. Three plays and -2 yards later, Iowa settled for yet another field goal; Caleb Shudak dutifully drained the 29-yard try. Field goal numero tres. 

After the defense forced another three-and-out, Padilla and the offense got the ball back with a chance to lead a drive that would hopefully a) eat up a lot of clock and b) lead to points, which would give Iowa a multi-score lead. Instead, Padilla threw a terrible pass on the second play of the drive and Illinois got the ball near midfield, down just seven points. A game that Iowa had largely controlled since the first few drives was somehow just one drive (or one big play) away from being tied... because of course it was. 

But once again, the Iowa defense stood firm. (Brian Ferentz also probably owes Phil Parker a steak dinner as well.) The defense held Illinois to seven yards on four plays and took over on a failed fourth down conversion. Six straight run plays took Iowa to the Illinois 11-yard line, but the offense -- again -- settled for a field goal. Shudak, 30 yards, good. Field goal numero cuatro. 

The only good thing about that field goal was that it pushed Iowa's lead from seven to 10, finally giving Iowa a two-score lead in the game. Two plays later Iowa's lead got even larger when Jack Campbell intercepted an errant Peters pass and ran it back to the end zone for a pick-six and a trip to Covertown for Iowa -12.

Iowa's stay in Covertown was a short one, though, because Peters led Illinois on a 75-yard touchdown drive against Iowa's prevent defense on the next series. One failed onside kick later and the game was finally, blessedly over. 

* Alex Padilla has generally played well since entering in relief of Spencer Petras against Northwestern two weeks ago, but this was definitely his weakest performance since becoming QB1: 6/17, 83 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT. Was the playcalling questionable at times? Of course. Was the pass protection shaky at times? Also yes. Was he hurt by multiple drops from his receivers? Good God yes. This the most drop-happy Iowa's receivers have been in several years and it absolutely crushed Iowa's offensive momentum (such as it was) on multiple occasions. But, still, Padilla just didn't look quite as sharp today -- his timing was a bit off at times, his passes a touch behind receivers at times, and the interception he threw was really ghastly. Hopefully he can flush this performance and play well against Nebraska on Friday. 

* In the absence of a working passing attack, Iowa's running game stepped up with one of their best games of the season. 52 carries for 172 yards is just 3.3 yards per carry, which isn't particulary good. But those totals include lost yardage from sacks and the botched punt attempt by Taylor in the first quarter. Tyler Goodson had 132 yards on 27 carries (4.9 ypc) and Gavin Williams had 56 yards on 10 carries (5.6 ypc) -- those are winning numbers for Iowa's running backs. The run game was still a bit feast-or-famine at times; RB carries seemed to go for either 8+ yard gains or negative yards on way too many plays, but overall we're still going to consider it progress. 

* Iowa's secondary had its struggles against Peters and the Illini passing game, but they still held him to 16/36 for 248 yards, 2 TD, and 2 INT, with over 60 of those yards coming on Illinois' final, meaningless scoring drive. Then again, Iowa's secondary was also missing a lot of its usual faces: three regular contributors (Matt Hankins, Jack Koerner, and Terry Roberts) missed the game due to injury. Their replacements performed did well enough. 

* Shouts to Caleb Shudak, who scored a whopping 15 points today on four field goals and three extra points. Iowa has been fortunate to have very good kickers for several years now, which is absolutely critical for a team that plays the defense-and-field position game like Iowa -- not to mention a team with an offense as prone to stalling out as the Hawkeye attack. Shudak has been money when called upon this year, though, and he was again today, minus one 56-yard kick (which is hardly a high percentage scoring try). Shudak waited his turn behind the likes of Miguel Recinos and Keith Duncan and we're very glad he did.

* Finally, an extra-special shout-out to Charlie Jones, who is an absolute maniac on kickoff and punt returns, in (mostly) the best possible way. Jones is convinced that he can return every single ball he fields and he'll be damned if you tell him otherwise. Would it have been wiser to fair catch a few of the balls he tried to return today or let them go and likely bounce into the end zone? Probably, yes. But his fearlessness and belief that he can break a return every single time he catches the ball is also what fuels his best returns and then that hits -- like it did today -- it's a beautiful thing. Bless you, Charlie, even if you occasionally give us a little heartburn with your kick return decisions. You're a genuine weapon for an Iowa team that needs all the tools it can grab to find its way into the end zone. 

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