The Good: Swarming Defense
Of all the middling to lower tier Big Ten teams that Kirk Ferentz seems to struggle with, Illinois is the one team that he’s got figured out. Since 2000, the Hawkeyes have only lost one game to the Fighting Illini, in 2008, and actually, Iowa probably should’ve won that game. That's ten wins in eleven games, something Ferentz hasn't even done against other Illinois teams, like Northwestern and Northern Illinois. As of late, the series has gotten downright ugly: Iowa has won the last three contests by a combined score of 136-16. The last three games also include two shutouts (remember No Kickoffs?), one of which was last Saturday.
Iowa’s defense was simply terrifying in Champaign and was spearheaded by A.J. Epenesa who did [INSERT EVERYTHING YOU CAN DO IN A FOOTBALL GAME HERE]. Epenesa had eight total tackles, 3.5 of which were for loss. He had 1.5 sacks, he did this:
Following an Amani Hooker pick, he also did this:
The only way you were stopping A.J. Epenesa last Saturday was with an elephant gun and bear mace.
And even then, he’d probably still get the sack.
As a team, the Hawkeyes combined for a bonkers 11 tackles for loss, three sacks, three interceptions and six pass breakups. If the Illini tried to run, Epenesa, Golston, Nelson and Hesse were in the offensive backfield. If they attempted to throw, Hooker and Ojemudia were in the defensive backfield. It was nothing short of nightmarish for Illinois, who only amassed 220 total yards and turned the ball over four times. They only converted two of their 17 third down attempts, went 1-6 on fourth down and averaged 3.0 yards per play. It was a miserable existence for the Illini on Saturday, as the closest they got to the end zone was Iowa’s 36-yard line.
Honorable Mention: Mekhi Sargent, Noah Fant (WHO?), T.J. Hockenson.
The Bad: Whatever Sort of Pass This Was
The Ugly: Too Little, Too Late
Per Mas Casa, Noah Fant was on the field the first 25 snaps of the game as Iowa frequently rolled out dual tight end formations and, surprise, it opened up the offense. Fant had five targets, three receptions, 54 yards and a touchdown. Hockenson was ultra-efficient, catching the ball twice, both for touchdowns. The bigger story of the day, though, was that Iowa actually ran the ball effectively, as Mekhi Sargent became Iowa’s first 100-yard rusher of the season. In all, Iowa running backs scored four touchdowns, rushed for 203 yards and averaged 5.5 yards per carry.
Was their success due to linebackers backing up in anticipation of Fant and Hockenson? I don’t know. If they did, it sure as hell fits my narrative!
There was a fake kneel. There was a punt return for a touchdown. Everyone got snaps. All of the stops were pulled out…for a 4-6 Illinois team.
Sort of reminded me of Nebraska last season. Or Nebraska and Illinois in 2016. These late season dominating wins that are, in the grand scheme of things, meaningless as Iowa is out of the division race. It would’ve been nice if Iowa played Fant, Hockenson and Epenesa so heavily against the likes of Purdue and Northwestern, but they didn’t, and Iowa lost. It’s unclear of why it takes a lot of losing before Ferentz makes common sense personnel decisions (see: Christensen, Jake; and Rudock, Jake) that can change the dynamic of an offense/defense, but it would be nice if he was a bit more proactive in making those determinations.
Oh, who am I kidding? He’s not going to do that.