By Tyler Devine
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Iowa’s one-two punch at running back delivered another blow on Saturday. This time it was senior LeShun Daniels who landed the knockout punch in a 28-0 victory over Illinois.
Daniels finished with a season-high 159 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries. It was the Ohio native's sixth career multi-touchdown game.
Patience was key to Daniels’ success as Iowa’s offense struggled to find a rhythm in the first half. Daniels secured the victory midway through the fourth quarter with a 50-yard touchdown run that expanded Iowa’s lead to 21-0.
“I think the offensive line was doing an excellent job of moving them off the ball,” Daniels said. “(Illinois) was also over-pursuing lots of things, just back side, so it was a lot about being patient during the runs and getting what you can and eventually a big one is going to pop.
“Lots of patience. You don’t want to be rushing or anything like that, you want to take time with your reads. They have good players on their defense so not everything is going to be bouncing to the outside or anything like that. You have to make sure that you’re staying patient and trusting the offensive line and you just have to ram it up in there.”
Junior running back Akrum Wadley also was no slouch against Illinois. The New Jersey native finished with 82 rushing yards and one touchdown on 16 carries.
Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz enjoys the luxury of having an effective one-two punch in the backfield and feels that Daniels and Wadley bring out the best in each other.
“A lot was written about Akrum last week, and rightfully so,” Ferentz said in reference to Wadley rushing for 115 yards in last Saturday's 14-13 victory over Michigan. “What a great performance against a really strong defensive football team. Akrum is a really good football player. We feel the same about LeShun. We’ve gone to a point this year where we feel like we have two guys who are really good football players. They’re trustworty, dependable and have great attitudes. They’re just really good veteran players.
“I was all for Akrum last week and I was all for LeShun this week. The bottom line is you need both of them, I think it plays well for both guys. I think it makes them both better players. Today happened to be LeShun’s day to get more yards, last week was Akrum’s. I think we’ll keep them working as a tandem. They really complement each other very well.”
Wadley was close to scoring another touchdown when he lost a fumble at the Illinois 1-yard line in the second quarter. He used to struggle with fumbling early in his career, but Ferentz didn't seem too concerned about Saturday's fumble.
"We're so far beyond that," Ferentz said.
A Windy Decision: In addition to not scoring any points, Illinois also had zero kickoffs in Saturday's game.
Iowa kicked off to start both halves because Ferentz wanted the 20-plus mph wind at his team's back to start both halves. A team usually elects to receive or defer its choice to the second half.
Saturday's game marked just the second time that Ferentz has used that strategy. After winning the coin toss, Ferentz instructed his captains to defend the North end zone. He made a similar decision against Michigan State in 2003, but it backfired.
"Some of you guys may remember this," Ferentz said. "But in '03 it didn't work out too well up in East Lansing. We took the wind and they drove it 80 yards and ate up about eight minutes.Double whammy there.
"This wind, and what it can do in the kicking game especially, just didn't want to take that chance today."
Iowa failed to take advantage of having the wind at its back in the first quarter, going 3-and-out on its first two offensive possessions. The decision paid dividends in the third quarter, though, as Illinois had two 3-and-outs and an interception.
Injury Report: Nearly one-third of Iowa's starting lineup was inactive on Saturday. Both of Iowa's offensive tackles, senior Cole Croston and junior Ike Boettger, were out because of injuries. Senior tight end George Kittle also missed his second consecutive game because of a foot injury. Kittle hasn't been the same since he injured his foot late in the second quarter against Purdue.
That has left quarerback C.J. Beathard without two of his favorite targets. Senior receiver Matt VandeBerg has been out since suffering a broken foot in practice on Sept. 26.
Iowa also was without half of its secondary. Senior cornerback Greg Mabin is out for the rest of the regular season with a slight fracture in his ankle, while junior safety Miles Taylor missed his first game of the season because of a head injury. Taylor suffered the injury early in the first quarter of the Michigan game last Saturday and didn't return.
True freshman Manny Rugamba made his second consecutive start for Mabin on Saturday, while senior Anthony Gair made his third career start in place of Taylor. Rugamba forced and then recovered a fumble on a kickoff in the fourth quarter. He also had an interception against Michigan last Saturday.
Junior defensive tackle Nathan Bazata did not start Saturday's game, but rotated with Faith Ekakitie.
Fant-astic: True freshman tight end Noah Fant led Iowa with a career-high three catches for 25 yards in Saturday's game. His biggest catch came in the second quarter when Beathard connected with Fant for 10 yards over the middle on 3rd-and-8. Iowa was 0-for-4 on third down before Fant's catch.
The Omaha native now has eight catches for 81 yards on the season. Fant will face his home-state school next Friday when Iowa hosts Nebraska in the regular-season finale at Kinnick Stadium.
Mighty McCarron: Riley McCarron's 55-yard punt return for a touchdown in the second quarter was the first of his career. It also was Iowa’s first punt return for a touchdown since Drew Ott returned a blocked punt against Nebraska in 2014.
Senior cornerback Desmond King is usually Iowa's only punt returner. But he was joined by McCarron on Saturday to help compensate for the wind.
"Credit to our punt return unit," McCarron said. "They did a great job blocking. I didn't even get a finger laid on me. So credit all to them. They did an outstanding job. i did the easy part."
McCarron's punt return came at a time when the Iowa offense was sputtering.
"It definitely felt good to get the momentum going and kind of get the guys going a little bit," McCarron said. "Special teams played a huge role in the game today, especially with this wind."
King’s Korner: King intercepted his second pass of the season on Saturday. The Detroit native now has 13 career interceptions and is tied with Tyler Sash for fifth all-time in school history.
"It feels good to get another interception," King said. "We played great as a defense today. And that's what happens when you play great defense as a team."
Iowa-Nebraska kickoff set: Next Friday's regular-season finale between Iowa and Nebraska will start at 2:30 p.m. at Kinnick Stadium.
Quick hitters: Iowa shutout a Big Ten opponent for the first time since defeating Minnesota 12-0 in 2009. It was Iowa’s first shutout since defeating Ball State 45-0 in 2010; Iowa won on the road for the fourth time this season; Beathard finished the game 9-of-17 passing for 80 yards. In 26 career starts, Beathard has thrown for fewer than 100 yards four times and Iowa has won all four games. Beathard is 20-6 as a starter and 10-1 in true road games; Jerminic Smith has caught a pass in 11 straight games; Wadley had two receptions for three yards. He has at least one reception in 13 straight games; Redshirt freshman offensive lineman Levi Paulsen made his first career start. Iowa has used seven starting offensive line combinations this season; Senior safety Anthony Gair made his third career start and recorded a career-high eight tackles; Junior linebacker Josey Jewell led Iowa with ten tackles. It is his sixth double-digit tackle effort this season; Kirk Ferentz now has 81 Big Ten wins, tying former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr for sixth among the conference’s all-time winningest coaches in Big Ten games; Iowa has seven wins for the 13th time since 1999, and the eighth time in the last nine seasons.