The fifth quarter: The Illinois win
Five things to ponder during the bye week about Iowa’s 45-16 win over Illinois on Saturday at Kinnick Stadium:
1. The good
Illinois’ run defense won’t be confused for one of the Big Ten’s best this season, but after two weeks of struggling to move the ball on the ground to rush for a season-high 191 yards is a good thing for the Hawkeyes.
Akrum Wadley looked like Akrum Wadley, screwing an Illini defender into the ground with a 90-degree cut during a first-half run and totaling 115 yards on 23 carries behind a remade Iowa offensive line.
True freshman Tristan Wirfs became the first first-year Hawkeye to start at offensive tackle in the Kirk Ferentz era, allowing Sean Welsh to move back to a guard position which seems to be a more natural fit.
With Alaric Jackson at left tackle and James Daniels at center, Keegan Render shifted to the other guard spot and Boone Myers was given the chance to rest a nagging ankle injury.
The second half was better than the first and the next game will need to be better than the last, but Hawkeyes did make a little progress in the run game.
That’s a good, and necessary, thing as Iowa moves into the second half of its schedule.
2. The really good
Even beyond the 89-yard pick six which matches the sixth-longest interception return in Hawkeye history, Brandon Snyder’s return to action for Iowa was a really good thing in a lot of respects.
He’s a proven leader at free safety and players who spent last season playing around him welcomed his return to the field. Hawkeye newcomers liked it as well, seeing his leadership put into actions.
Snyder’s return from an ACL tear suffered six months ago happened because of quick healing, the work of the Hawkeye medical and training staffs and the determination of a player who didn’t want his junior season to go to waste.
His work didn’t go unnoticed and he felt the roar of the crowd as he passed them by on his way to the end zone Saturday.
“It was a really cool moment to run into stands full of Iowa fans,″ Snyder said. “It was a great way to come back.″
3. The just plain fun
Hayden Fry called them exotics.
Saturday, Iowa called them effective.
The Hawkeyes executed both an onside kick and a fake punt during the first half of the win over the Fighting Illini.
Miguel Recinos’ perfectly-place kick that was recovered by Matt Hankins allowed Iowa to retain the possession of the football after a Nick Easley touchdown catch with 4 minutes, 16 seconds left in the first quarter.
The fake punt came a quarter later with Amani Hooker helping Iowa overcome a fourth-and-five situation with an 18-yard carry that extended a drive which ultimately led to Iowa’s go-ahead touchdown.
In both instances, coach Kirk Ferentz said he felt the opportunity was there to create a little momentum.
He also said both had been worked on extensively on the practice field.
“It’s a little easier call to make when you see it work a couple of times during the week,″ Ferentz said.
It’s a risk-reward situation that paid off for the Hawkeyes in their fourth win of the season. They’re also the kind of plays that make football fun for players, coaches and fans alike.
4. The awesome
Illinois players and coaches and game officials joined Iowa fans, players, coaches in participating in the “Hawkeye wave.”
After Saturday’s first quarter, Fighting Illini players and coaches huddled in front of the team’s bench turned and join the nearly 70,000 others at Kinnick Stadium in waving to the kids and families watching from above across the street at the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital.
Kids, watching from upper levels of facility, wave back in a tradition that even hit the highway last week when Michigan State officials had fans at Spartan Stadium show their support to children hospitalized everywhere and their families by waving at the end of the opening quarter.
It’s a tremendous gesture and that bonds the long-time ties between the UI children’s hospital and a football program whose players have made regular visits to the facility for decades.
5. The work to do
Iowa’s effort against Illinois wasn’t flawless.
Ivory Kelly-Martin fumbled the ball away on the Hawkeyes’ first possession and Nate Stanley threw his second interception of the season later in the opening half.
The Hawkeyes cleaned that up in the second half but have turned the ball over 11 times during the first six games of the season.
There are plenty of other things for Iowa to work on during its bye week before turning thoughts to an Oct. 21 game at Northwestern.
Iowa’s rushing attack now averages 3.7 yards per carry, nearly a yard less than Hawkeye opponents are averaging any time they choose to run the ball. Some degree of stability on the offensive line will only help that segment of the game improve.
Punting and return games continue to need growth and will receive attention this week as well.
The good news about the bad news is the bye week provides Iowa with a chance to work on its shortcomings. Time will tell how much growth is possible with a relatively young football team.