The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

Iowa RB Kaleb Johnson breaks out of slump and powers Iowa past Illinois

The second-year back scored his first touchdown since Week 6, and it helped clinch the Big Ten West title for the Hawkeyes.
Cody Blissett
Iowa running back Kaleb Johnson carries the ball during a football game between Iowa and Illinois at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2023. The Hawkeyes defeated the Fighting Illini, 15-13.

With less than five minutes left in the game, the No. 16 Iowa football team was in desperate need of a spark. Having been outgained, 103-42, in the third quarter against Illinois, Iowa found itself in need of a touchdown to triumph as Illini kicker Caleb Griffin nailed a 29-yard field goal to extend Illinois ‘ lead to four to start the fourth. 

Illinois seemed to have all of the momentum, and Iowa’s offense couldn’t move the ball. In the Hawkeyes’ initial two drives following the field goal, they gained just 20 yards of offense, 15 of which were from a pass interference penalty. 

After Iowa returner Kaden Wetjen split multiple defenders on a 17-yard punt return, the Hawkeyes were set at their own 46-yard line with 6:51 remaining in the game.

Enter second-year running back Kaleb Johnson. 

After a converting a first down, Iowa gained 10 yards from a defensive holding penalty against the Illini. With 4:49 remaining, the back delivered in the clutch.

Breaking through the right side, Johnson, aided by blocks from tight ends Addison Ostrenga and Steven Stillianos, dashed along the right hash. Avoiding Illini defensive back Mac Resetich, Johnson angled toward the sideline and into the end-zone from 30 yards out to give the Hawkeyes the lead for good; crowning them Big Ten West champs for the third time in program history. 

Compared to the racous crowd that eruped as he crossed the goal line, Johnson gave a practical answer when asked about his score in his postgame press conference.

“I just saw a bunch of green grass and took off running,” he said. 

The Iowa players were overcome with joy, especially fifth-year defensive lineman Logan Lee, who was on the other side of the field prepping with the field goal unit. Having to sprint down the sideline to get back into action, Lee had no qualms. 

“It was pretty cool to celebrate that moment with all of the players and the fans,” he said.  

Immediately after his go-ahead score, Johnson briefly leaned against the Kinnick Stadium wall before being mobbed by his teammates, knowing that he had finally put an end to a challenging few weeks. 

“I just want to thank God for giving me this opportunity, it’s just a blessing,” Johnson said. 

Just two weeks ago, the second-year didn’t see any snaps during Iowa’s 10-7 win against Northwestern. Starting the season as the Hawkeyes’ first-string running back, Johnson found himself at the No. 3 spot heading into this week. 

“I’ve just tried to be patient with myself and know that my time has come,” Johnson said. 

His last rushing touchdown came against Purdue in Week 6, and despite the lack of reps and playing time, head coach Kirk Ferentz praised Johnson’s work ethic. 

“He’s practiced well every day and kept his chin up and worked forward,” Ferentz said.

On the ensuing possession, after the Hawkeye defense stopped Illinois on fourth down, the Iowa offense needed one more first down to put the game on ice. 

Facing a third-and-8 from the Fighting Illini 31-yard line, Johnson ran straight through the teeth of the Illinois defense to put the game away for good. He finsished the game with 10 carries for 53 yards, but the runnning back once again kept things simple on the field.

“I put my head down, saw a crease, and ended the game,” 

Hailing from Hamilton, Ohio, Johnson was an all-state player during his senior season and had originally committed to Cal Berkeley, but one visit to Iowa showed him a new perspective. 

Needless to say, he made the right choice and is now a division champion.

“It’s an amazing feeling, I feel like I did something valuable for the team and I am glad someone believed in me and gave me a shot,” Johnson said. 

Not only was Saturday’s game important in the divisional race, but it was also senior day, and many notable Hawkeyes such as punter Tory Taylor, wide receiver Nico Ragaini, and defensive lineman Joe Evans all played their final game inside Kinnick Stadium. 

“These seniors have meant so much to me,” Johnson said. “I didn’t want to see them leave with a loss, so it turned on an extra gear for me.” 

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About the Contributors
Brad Schultz, Sports Reporter
Cody Blissett, Visuals Editor
Cody Blissett is a visual editor at The Daily Iowan. He is a third year student at the University of Iowa studying cinema and screenwriting. This is his first year working for The Daily Iowan.