By Pat Harty
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – My parents used to tell me as a kid to be grateful for what I had because there were people far worse off than me.
I was reminded of that advice on Saturday while watching the Iowa football team destroy Illinois 63-0 at a cold, dreary and half empty Memorial Stadium.
I was reminded that Iowa’s problems in football pale in comparison to the mess at Illinois, which entered Saturday’s game ranked last in the Big Ten in virtually every defensive statistical category and with a fan base that hardly even shows up for the games anymore.
The atmosphere at Memorial Stadium on Saturday was dismal, but the performance by Illinois on the field was even worse.
You name it and Illinois struggled to do it on defense, on offense and on special teams, while Iowa excelled in all three of those areas.
“I think all three phases of the team played real well today,” said Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley, who passed for three touchdowns in Saturday’s game. “The defense did a great job of giving us a short field a lot of times and then special teams came up with one touchdown and then a short field for us.
“So I think everybody just played really well together today and I’m just happy to come out with the win.”
Saturday’s lopsided score probably said more about the state of the Illinois program under head coach Lovie Smith than about the Iowa program under Kirk Ferentz, who picked up his 150th career win as the Iowa head coach. It tied for the largest margin of defeat in the history of the Illinois program and was Iowa’s most lopsided victory since a 66-0 shutout against Northern Iowa in 1997.
“We had a really good week of preparation and today, to me, is just a total team victory I think in every way you look at it,” Ferentz said. “Our goal was for our team to play with purpose and to play with resolve, and hopefully show some toughness today, and I think the guys did that.
“We were sharp on offense and I thought we really played disruptively on defense and opportunistic on special teams. So again, just a total team victory for us.”
Defensive end A.J. Epenesa was the most disruptive of all the Iowa defenders as he finished with eight tackles, including 3.5 for losses and 1.5 sacks. The sophomore from Edwardsville, Ill., also returned a fumble that he had forced 19 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter and blocked a punt during a stretch in which Iowa scored three consecutive touchdowns in barely two minutes.
“That completely changed the momentum and the feel of the game totally,” Iowa defensive end Parker Hesse said of Epenesa’s big plays in the second quarter. “It broke it wide open for us.”
Iowa improved to 7-4 overall and 4-4 in the Big Ten and will face a vastly improved Nebraska squad next Friday in the regular-season finale at Kinnick Stadium.
The Cornhuskers (4-7) defeated Michigan State 9-6 on Saturday and have won four of their last five games.
Iowa led Illinois 35-0 at halftime, which would have meant a continuous clock to start the second half if they had used high school rules.
The lead swelled to 42-0 when Iowa receiver Kyle Groeneweg returned a punt 61 yards for a touchdown with 13 minutes, 26 seconds left in the third quarter.
By that point, Iowa had almost as many points on the scoreboard as Illinois had students sitting in the student section.
The game was such a mismatch that it was hard not to have some sympathy for the Illinois players.
As for the Iowa players, they were just happy to finally get back in the win column after having lost the previous three games against Penn State, Purdue and Northwestern by a combined 12 points.
With Saturday’s 63-point winning margin, Iowa has outscored its last four opponents by 51 points, but is just 1-3 in those games.
The three-game losing streak cost Iowa a chance to win the Big Ten West Division, and it caused some Hawkeye fans and members of the media to question Iowa’s use of star tight end Noah Fant, who was only targeted three times during the 14-10 loss to Northwestern last Saturday.
However, against Illinois, Fant played the first 25 snaps in the game and was targeted at least three times before the first quarter was even half over.
It almost looked as if Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz went out of his way to get Fant involved early against Illinois.
“I don’t know if there was any major conversations on the thing,” Kirk Ferentz said of getting Fant more involved in the offense. “We’re a better team, obviously, if our tight ends are involved and doing well.
“And he had a good week and the plan worked out well today. It was good to see him being involved and helping our team move. It was a really productive day for him.”
Fant was among eight players for Iowa who caught at least one pass in Saturday’s game. He finished with three catches for 54 yards and scored Iowa’s first touchdown on a 9-yard pass from Stanley with 6:20 left in the first quarter.
“I just go in where I’m supposed to and do the best I can when I’m out there,” Fant said. “At the end of the day, I just want to win games.”
Iowa has shown that it can dismantle mediocre opponents, and that is basically what happened on Saturday, although, calling Illinois mediocre at this stage of the season might be a stretch.
After a sluggish first quarter that ended with Iowa leading 7-0, the Hawkeyes started to exert their superiority early in the second quarter by scoring three touchdowns in barely two minutes.
Iowa’s first touchdown in the second quarter came on a three-yard run by Mekhi Sargent with 13:50 remaining before halftime. The second touchdown came on Epenesa’s 19-yard fumble return with 13:42 remaining in the second quarter, while the third touchdown came on an 11-yard pass from Stanley to tight end T.J. Hockenson with 11:43 left before halftime.
Epenesa also helped to set up Hockenson’s touchdown reception by blocking a punt deep in Illinois territory.
“No better place to do it other than Kinnick, I guess,” Epenesa said.
Epenesa might have had more fans in the stands than Illinois by the end of Saturday’s victory. He said approximately 120 to 150 family and friends from Illinois attended Saturday’s game.
“That’s all that really mattered was to get back in the W column and to bounce back from those three losses,” Epenesa said. “And to come out and play the way we did and to hold them to zero, you couldn’t ask for anything better.”
Sargent led Iowa with 121 rushing yards and he became the first Iowa player to surpass 100 yards rushing in a game this season.
“It feels amazing,” Sargent said. “Credit to the o-line. The o-line did an amazing job out there.”
It was hard to find anything wrong with Iowa’s performance on Saturday. It won’t make up for what happened in the previous three games or change the West Division standings.
But it was a reminder that the situation at Iowa could be a lot worse.
Fans are frustrated with Iowa not winning the Big Ten West title, and rightfully so, but imagine how the Illinois fans must feel right now.