Iowa rallies from early deficit, defeats Illinois to stay alive in Big Ten West race

The Hawkeyes trailed 10-0 in the first quarter but eventually beat the Illini, 33-23, at Kinnick Stadium.


Grace Smith

Iowa players celebrate linebacker Jack Campbell’s interception and touchdown during a football game between No. 17 Iowa and Illinois at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021. The Hawkeyes defeated the Illini 33-23 at the last home game of the season.

Robert Read, Pregame Editor

Kirk Ferentz’s postgame press conference had barely begun before the 23rd-year Iowa head coach admitted that his team’s win over Illinois wasn’t exactly pretty.

Hawkeye quarterback Alex Padilla completed only 35 percent of his passes in his second career start, and Iowa’s receivers dropped balls throughout the afternoon. The Fighting Illini drove 75 yards on their first drive for a touchdown. The first Iowa possession of the day ended with a bad snap on a punt that set Illinois up in the red zone. The Hawkeyes trailed 10-0 before the first quarter had even ended.

But between special teams and defensive touchdowns, plus four field goals from kicker Caleb Shudak, the No. 17 Hawkeyes (9-2 overall, 6-2 Big Ten) downed the Fighting Illini (4-6, 3-5), 33-23, at Kinnick Stadium on Senior Day to stay alive in the Big Ten West race.

“It was a game of missed opportunities it seemed,” Ferentz said. “We found a way to win. And that’s what’s important.”

The Hawkeyes have won eight consecutive games against the Illini, who have not won at Kinnick Stadium since 1999.

Iowa’s first points of the day came on a 100-yard kickoff return by senior wide receiver/returner Charlie Jones right after Illinois went up 10-0. The next time the Hawkeyes got the ball, freshman wide receiver Arland Bruce IV — who made his first career start on Saturday — made a toe-tap catch in the red zone to set up another score. Bruce took a jet sweep carry and powered through a defender into the end zone for a two-yard touchdown.

The next four times Iowa scored came courtesy of Shudak’s right leg. The sixth-year senior, who opted to return for the 2021 season to take on the starting job, hit four of his five field goal attempts on Senior Day, including a career-long 51-yarder.

Iowa went up 17-10 at one point after trailing 10-0. But the Illini, who were without first-year head coach and former Hawkeye Bret Bielema after he tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday night, made it a four-point game in the third quarter. A 32-yard interception return by linebacker Jack Campbell with less than two minutes remaining sealed Iowa’s win. Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters threw a garbage time touchdown with less than a minute to go.

“We grind it out,” Padilla said. “We know every game can be a tough game. There’s always the teams in the Big Ten that have great defenses and we have to play complimentary football. Special teams did a great job obviously. That return by Charlie today was huge. Just playing complimentary football we know it’s going to be a fistfight every time we go out.”

Ferentz declined to name Padilla the starter moving forward after the game. He said the Iowa coaching staff will continue to evaluate Padilla and Petras to determine who will start against Nebraska to close out the regular season.

Padilla went 6-of-17 passing for 83 yards and an interception in his second career start.

Turning point

Iowa overcame a 14-0 deficit against Illinois in Champaign last year. The Hawkeyes overcame a 10-0 deficit against the Illini in Iowa City this time around.

After an opening drive that traveled 75 yards and resulted in a touchdown, the Fighting Illini capitalized off a Hawkeye gaff to extend their lead. Iowa got to the Illinois 43-yard line on its first drive of the game, but opted to punt on fourth and three. Well, the Hawkeyes tried to punt.

The snap to punter Tory Taylor was low and rolled all the way back to Iowa’s 28-yard line.

But Iowa’s defense allowed zero yards on the ensuing Illinois drive and held the Illini to a field goal. Illinois took a 10-0 lead with three minutes and 20 seconds remaining in the first quarter.

Then Jones happened. Ferentz joked earlier in the week that Iowa’s kickoff return team would get this week off because of the prowess of Illinois’ kickoff unit. That wasn’t the case. The senior fielded the kickoff that followed the field goal on the right side of the field on the goal line of the south end zone. Fifteen seconds later, Jones was crossing the other goal line. The Buffalo transfer returned the kick 100 yards (tying a school record) for a touchdown to put Iowa on the board for the first time on Saturday.

“That was a designed play,” Jones said. “It was great blocking, just like we saw it on film. It was really a good call by [special teams coordinator LeVar Woods]. I knew I had great blocking to my left. I was able to cut inside and then saw guys blocking downfield. It was just me and some grass and guys were just working along the way. The guys on that unit are special. They really take pride in what they do and make me look good out there.”

The touchdown was Jones’ second special teams score as a Hawkeye. Jones has not decided if he will use an extra year of eligibility to return to Iowa next season.

After the Illini took a 10-0 lead, Iowa scored 17 consecutive points. That all started with the swing in momentum provided by Jones’ touchdown.

Big picture

Iowa’s chances of going to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship Game are not dead quite yet. The Hawkeyes are in a tie atop the Big Ten West with one week remaining in the regular season. Wisconsin is the other team at the top after narrowly beating Nebraska in Madison on Saturday.

Since the Badgers beat the Hawkeyes, they have the head-to-head tiebreaker.

If Iowa beats Nebraska, and if Minnesota beats Wisconsin next weekend, the Hawkeyes will win the Big Ten West. If Wisconsin wins, or if Iowa loses, the Badgers will win the division.

“We want to be in the Big Ten Championship,” Iowa running back Tyler Goodson said. “Hopefully [Wisconsin wins] next week. But our focus right now is going into Nebraska and getting a win.”

Iowa also has a chance for its fourth 10-win regular season under Ferentz. This is Iowa’s ninth season with at least nine victories (including bowl wins).

Campbell’s big play

Campbell went into the locker room and apologized after his pick six in the fourth quarter. Really.

As the linebacker approached the end zone on his interception return, he hesitated for a moment and considered taking a knee so that Iowa’s offense could take a knee and end the game. He scored instead. Ferentz, though, was cheering him on and wanted Campbell to score, as did the rest of the Hawkeyes on the sideline.

“That was the funniest play of the game, because you guys could see how torn he was,” Ferentz said, laughing. “I was cheering for him to score, actually, even though it might not be the smart play. It was funny. What he does never surprises me.”

Campbell led the Hawkeyes with eight tackles. The junior from Cedar Falls helped lead an Iowa defense that held a fierce Illinois rushing attack to only 64 yards on the ground. Campbell is the 11th different Hawkeye to record an interception this season.

Goodson climbing the ladder

Goodson ran for 140 yards on 27 attempts against Illinois, giving him 945 yards on the ground this season. In the process of Saturday’s game, the running back from Suwanee, Georgia, passed two noteworthy Hawkeyes on the all-time leaderboards.

The junior jumped Shonn Greene and Ronnie Harmon to move into 10th place on Iowa’s all-time rushing leaderboard with 2,345 yards. To get to No. 9, Goodson will need to surpass Owen Gill, who has 2,556 yards.

With 55 more yards, Goodson would have the 21st 1,000-yard season in Iowa history.

Injuries on the back end

Iowa was without cornerbacks Matt Hankins and Terry Roberts, as well as safety Jack Koerner against Illinois. Riley Moss and Jermari Harris started at corner, while Quinn Schulte picked up his first career start in place of Koerner.

“Some people might go down and you never know who is going to be in next,” said defensive back Dane Belton, who recorded his Big Ten-leading fifth interception of the season on Saturday. “That’s just the “next man in” mentality, and everyone is held to the same standard. It is kind of a pressure on [the backups], like, ‘I might be two or three on the depth chart, but I can be thrown into the game, and I have to make a play, too.’”

Hankins has a “way to go” before he can play again, per Ferentz. Meanwhile, Iowa’s coaching staff hopes Koerner and Roberts can play next week.

Up next

Iowa wraps up its regular season schedule with a Black Friday matchup with Nebraska in Lincoln on Nov. 26. The game is scheduled to kick off at 12:30 p.m. and will air on the Big Ten Network. The Huskers are 3-8 overall and 1-7 in Big Ten play after losing on Saturday.

The Hawkeyes have defeated the Huskers in six consecutive meetings. Nebraska head coach Scott Frost, who will return next season, is 0-3 against Iowa in his coaching career.