By Pat Harty
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – One week after making a statement that shocked the college football world, the Iowa football team was at it again on Saturday, only the circumstances were much different.
A game against Illinois that had letdown written all over it showed early signs of being just that until the Iowa offense finally established its dominance on the ground in the second half.
Iowa scored a touchdown on its first possession of the third quarter and never looked back while blanking the Fighting Illini 28-0 at a cold, windy and half-empty Memorial Stadium.
Iowa was clinging to a 7-0 lead at halftime, thanks to a 55-yard punt return for a touchdown by senior receiver Riley McCarron with 4 minutes, 33 seconds left in the second quarter.
The Iowa offense had sputtered throughout the first half against a defense that has been a sieve for most of the season. You name it and the Hawkeyes struggled to do it on offense in the first two quarters. They dropped passes. They missed blocks. And they struggled to run against a bad defense.
So it was only natural to wonder if Iowa was suffering from a letdown after defeating previously undefeated Michigan 14-13 last Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.
“I know a lot was made during the week about trap game and those types of things,” said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. “To me, it all gets down to your approach and that’s what we talk to our players about. One thing we’ve always tried to work with our guys is to take a consistent approach.
“It really gets down to the detail, the way they approach their preparation, and then most importantly, the way they bring energy and compete on the field. “So if you can establish some good habits and fall back on those things, some good things can happen out of it.”
Iowa’s once-promising season appeared to be unraveling in the wake of a 41-14 loss against Penn State on Nov. 5 in University Park, Pa. The Hawkeyes barely fired a shot on offense against Penn State, while also putting up little resistance on defense.
Ferentz called his team’s performance against Penn State unacceptable.
In fact, Iowa performed so poorly that Penn State running back Saquon Barkley more or less accused the Iowa players of quitting.
His accusation appears to have struck a chord because Iowa now has made statements in back-to-back games.
The statement against Michigan was heard from coast to coast and made Iowa a hot topic for the past week in college football.
The statement against Illinois wasn’t nearly as loud or as far-reaching, but was equally important. It showed that Iowa could handle success as well as adversity.
“It was one of those deals where you’ve got to stick together,” said Iowa junior linebacker Bo Bower. “You either go down the drain or you pick yourself up and move on and stick together. And that’s what we’re doing right now.”
Iowa performed well in all three phases of the game on Saturday, but defense led the way for the second week in a row.
Iowa shutout a Big Ten opponent for the first time since defeating Minnesota 12-0 on Nov. 21, 2009. It also was Iowa’s first shutout since a 45-0 victory over Ball State in 2010.
“It’s awesome,” Bower said of the shutout. “Having a shutout is great. Defensively, that’s what you want to do.”
Iowa’s goal on offense was to ground and pound, even more so than usual because of the weather conditions on Saturday. The strategy finally paid dividends in the second half when Iowa gained 182 of its 262 rushing yards.
Senior running back LeShun Daniels led the ground assault with 159 rushing yards on 26 carries. He gained 113 yards in the second half.
“In the first half, we weren’t really playing good at all,” Daniels said. “I mean frankly, we looked terrible in the first half.
“The defense was playing its tail off and we weren’t doing anything to help them. So we went in at halftime and we got the offense together and we’re like, `okay, that’s not us. We’ve got to go out there and do what we do.”’
Iowa improved to 7-4 overall and 5-3 in the Big Ten with the victory, while Illinois fell to 3-8 and 2-6 under first-year coach Lovie Smith.
The Hawkeyes will face Nebraska in the regular-season finale next Friday at Kinnick Stadium in a game that has more importance than it did two weeks ago.
Iowa can’t defend its Big Ten West Division title anymore since Wisconsin won on Saturday. But a victory over Nebraska could send the Hawkeyes to the Holiday Bowl in sunny San Diego.
The Holiday Bowl hardly compares to the Rose Bowl, but it would be a nice consolation prize in a season that just two weeks ago looked hopeless.
Two wins in a row doesn’t necessarily mean a turning point, but that’s sort of how it feels with this Iowa team. Maybe it had to hit rock bottom before it could climb back to respectability.
The Penn State loss was certainly rock bottom, but it wasn’t the start of a collapse.
Iowa has made two vastly different statements since then to prove it.