The Aftermath: Illinois

By BenSewardLewis on November 21, 2021 at 6:02 pm
go hawks go
© Bryon Houlgrave/The Register / USA TODAY NETWORK
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If there is any other team in the Big Ten West that is more than happy to join Iowa in a dizzy-bat knife fight, it's Illinois. They have shamelessly fuglied their way up and down the field all season, including one of the all-time shit-snorters, their 20-18 nonuple-overtime win over Penn State. Bret and his Fightin’ Illini just don’t give a rip about anything other than daring you into a slapping contest until you find yourself rambling incoherently with a few teeth missing in a backyard wrestling video, any notions of honor or dignity vanishing several meth hits ago.

Iowa has taken a similar approach, albeit with better results. The big difference is that Iowa has yuckity-yucked their way to nine wins with the haughty benefit of an incredible ball-hawkin’ secondary and Charlie Fucking Jones. Take away those two accoutrements and Iowa is hanging out with Illinois in the same trailer park, trying to scrap together enough wins to make a bowl game. While I would have it another way, God bless it, I love these Hawkeyes.

We were all braced for a lot of slobber-knockin’, but Illinois shocked everybody by having Brandon Peters throw the Rock around more frequently than a movie studio. With Illinois throwing 22 passes in the first half, their game plan was way more Purdue than Wisconsin. This is a bold strategy when you don’t have either Aiden O’Connell or David Bell.

On the first drive, though, it paid off. The Iowa defense seemed stunned by the pass-heavy gameplan, with Peters finding guys open and perhaps most surprisingly, hitting them. Peters went 7-for-8 on this drive (the lone incompletion was a stone-cold drop) for 68 yards, finishing it off when Iowa’s defense said “nah” to covering Illinois’ tight end in the red zone; Luke Ford just ran a few yards and turned around to get himself wiiiiddddeeee-open. The pass was so easy a Big Ten West quarterback could complete it, and he scurried into the end zone before a defender could lay on hand on him, giving Illinois an early 7-0 lead.

As annoying as that drive was, there are few things in reality less sustainable than Brandon Peters playing quarterback at a high level. Plus, once Illinois tipped their hand on their plan of attack, everyone adjusted and that shit just stopped. Consider: Illinois converted on third down three times on the first drive. They had one third down conversion the rest of the game. Illinois made a few plays from here on out, but they didn't sniff the end zone until Peters began chucking bombs all over the field Mouser-style at the end of the game in a desperate attempt to cover.

The Iowa offense is still a hot mess, but they are our hot mess. They did move the ball on their first drive, with some competent running and a nice pass to Keagan Johnson, but they stalled out on the Illinois 43 on a fourth-and-three. Calling a play here was deemed too risky by Ferentz, but there are no risk-free propositions in football, and with the play clock dwindling on the punt attempt and Tory Taylor not quite ready, the long-snapper hurried the snap to avoid a “who cares?” delay-of-game penalty. Taylor couldn’t reel in the low line drive and the ball bounced backwards 29 yards before Taylor fell on it.

As it always seems to do, Iowa’s defense came to the rescue. After an Illinois penalty drove them back on first down, Illinois gained 15 yards on first down (their best run of the day) but gained no additional yards on subsequent downs and kicked a field goal. With a tourniquet in place to stop the early bleeding, enter Charlie Jones, the nitrous tank turned into a real boy. The kickoff was a good one, falling from the sky into the front right corner of the end zone. 99% of kick returners would have let it bounce into the end zone or called for a fair catch. Not Mr. All Gas, No Brakes Charlie Jones. Fielding the kick on his right, Charlie veered to his left. The return team parted the Orange sea, creating a lane to the left sideline. The kicker un-astutely took an ill-advised acute angle to Jones, managing to do no more than high-five Jones’ shoe, and Illinois’ last chance at a touchdown-saving tackle ended in futility.

With all that adrenaline pumping through their veins the defense had no problem shutting down the Illini, who punted again from their 28-yard line. Jones wasn’t done handing out Christmas presents, setting the offense up at the 50 after returning the punt 13 yards. It even inspired the offense to score a touchdown.

This drive was all Arland Bruce the Quad. Bruce kicked off the drive with 13 yards on a jet sweep. Then, on a third-and-nine, he ran deep. Six-Shooter Padilla was being overrun by defenders, flicked the pass at the last second towards Bruce’ back shoulder and the sideline. Given that the catch window was all of five centimeters, this was a great throw, but the catch was even better. Bruce managed to haul in the 28-yard pass at his feet, despite being dry-humped by the defender, all while momentum and gravity conspired to pull him out of bounds. With the ball at the Illinois 8, a Goodson run for three yards and a Padilla run (!) for three more yards got Iowa two yards shy of the endzone. Brian called another jet sweep to Bruce, who sprinted to the left before plowing through a defender for a touchdown.

It was fun with field goals for the rest of the half. Iowa added another field goal thanks to a nice mix of running and passing plays before three straight -1 yard runs killed the drive. Illinois added a field goal of their own after a couple of chunk passing plays. Iowa squandered a great scoring opportunity thanks to a righteous Dane Belton interception on the Illinois 41, but hey, 17-13 at the half ain’t bad.

The second half was just the Iowa defense begging the Iowa offense to make it a two-score game and the offense repeatedly saying “That’s a no from me, dawg.” Iowa’s boom-or-bust running game tilted a lot more towards boom than it has most of the year in the second half, with Iowa pushing the lead to 20-13 entirely on the ground (and Caleb Shudak’s awesomeness.)

But Iowa’s passing game? Good lord. Iowa completed one pass the entire second half. Just one. Padilla had his worst game of his early career, sure. His passes were slightly off. Mostly just not crisp or precise, but if he had guys running wide open, he and I both didn’t see them. When Padilla did manage to dodge all the guys in the backfield and desperately tried to get the ball to a covered receiver, nobody could do him a solid, with the fingers on two hands' worth of drops. There was not a single aspect of Iowa’s passing game that was even mediocre and all the stuff that was working in the first half (like the Bruce jet sweep) had their returns diminish to nothing after the Illini adjusted.

Illinois’ offense fared no better. They did add another field goal after Casey Washington managed to dupe Riley Moss on a stop-and-go move for 44 yards, but the game just kind of hovered around the four-point mark until Charlie Jones got the ball to the Illinois 47 and a bunch of penalties on Illinois for just being themselves gave Iowa the ball on the Illinois 17. The only cool thing that happened was Brian calling a wide receiver pass from Nico Ragaini to Padilla that wasn’t completed but did draw a penalty. The ensuing field goal pushed Iowa's lead back to seven points.

Illinois punted again. Padilla forced a pass to a double-covered Keagan Johnson for an interception, but Illinois’ offense had no more life than Iowa’s, and they turned it over on downs after Quinn Schulte swatted away what would have surely been a conversion on a fourth down try. It was just the prompt Iowa's offense needed. A couple of big runs by Tyler Goodson and Gavin Williams got the ball well into field goal range. From here we got the Ferentz special, but running it three times in the red zone and kicking a field goal to go up 10 with two minutes left actually makes sense.

There was a bit more theatrics left in the game, but the drama was played out at this point. Jack Campbell scored the most tentative tip-drill pick six you will ever see to push Iowa's lead out to 17 points. Illinois desperation-chucked their way to another touchdown, but that just moved the score to a more respectable 33-23 loss and a back-door cover.

Somehow, someway, Iowa has already played 11 games and come out on top of nine of them. It does not seem possible, but it is true. I spend a lot of time in this column talking about the trees, but we probably should admire this forest of mangled oaks. Iowa is an upset of Nebraska (the Huskers are favored by 3-4 points in the opening lines) and a Minnesota upset of Wisconsin away from playing in the Big Ten Championship Game. Iowa’s 2021 offense might be the worst of Ferentz’s Iowa tenure, but the defense and special teams have managed to drag the offense along like the dog tied to the Griswolds' station wagon. I hope they make it to Indy.

Random Thoughts

* Special Teams. Yeah, the flubbed punt sucked, but it is hard to express enough hyperbole about Charlie Jones and Caleb Shudak. While part of me wants to tell Jones “discretion is the better part of valor,” I know it isn't true for this team. He is pressing out there pretty much because he has to and it is mostly awesome. Shudak meanwhile has some Top Gun, Ice Man-level proficiency in his veins. (It is a bummer Iowa couldn’t muster up the six extra yards at the end of the half to give him a shot at the field goal.) If Keith Duncan was kicking yesterday, he probably doesn’t have enough to make at least two of those field goals.

* The defensive line's pressure was mostly bad today. The line had a coverage sack and got through another time, but I look forward to this unit getting another off-season of seasoning. The coverage on the back end though, is so, so, so consistently great and a pleasure to watch. (They absolutely never give up on a play either, even when they are beat.)

* The Goodson-hesitation thing. Is this real? I don’t know. Iowa’s zone-running scheme by design requires patience. There is no set gap before the play starts and you have to read where the blocks dictate where the play should go. If Goodson is misreading the play such that the opposite-side contain can run him down, I blame more of this on scheme and coaching anyway.

* This passing game is just so vomit-inducing bad. I hope Padilla can get a little more precise, as he could have had Goodson for a massive gain at the end of the first half if he takes a smidge off the throw. (It was the right read, though.) Still, someone has to help Padilla by getting open or making a contested catch. Padilla repeatedly tried to make something out of nothing but nobody helped him out.

* Not Hawkeye-related, but am I turning into an early-onset curmudgeon, or are college football announcers becoming worse? I don't know what the background of the non-Devin Gardner announcer was, but he seemed utterly lost throughout the game. I don't get it. I am convinced I could do a better job. I am a nobody who hasn't played football since 1998, but I at least know how to watch football. 

* Ski-U-Mah and Row the Boat. (Offer good for this Saturday only. Not valid for any other football weekends. Offer void where prohibited.)

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