Hawkeyes deal Illini their worst home loss in 95 years
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Shaking off the sting of a three-game losing streak, Iowa’s football team found itself Saturday and there wasn’t anything helpless Illinois could do to stop it.
The Hawkeyes routed the Fighting Illini 63-0 at Memorial Stadium, Iowa’s largest shutout of a Big Ten opponent since scoring 65 against Northwestern in 1981 and the worst defeat Illinois has ever endured at 95-year-old Memorial Stadium, surpassing a 57-point shutout loss to Michigan in 1969.
“We wanted to come out and be ourselves, just play hard in every phase, and that’s what we did,” Iowa defensive end Parker Hesse said.
Things didn’t start so well for the Hawkeyes.
Quarterback Nate Stanley was intercepted by the Fighting Illini’s DelShawn Phillips on Iowa’s second snap of the game, but the Hawkeye defense forced a three-and-out on the ensuing possession, and that sent a message of Iowa’s intent.
“We couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start, but the defense, it stepped up and got a quick stop that set the tone for the rest of the day,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said.
Illinois’ tone had been set by then as well.
The Fighting Illini were whistled for an illegal formation on their first snap of the game, backing up an offense that needed all the help it could get when 1,000-yard rusher Reggie Corbin limped off the field after carrying the ball just one time.
With back-up running back Mike Epstein already sidelined by an injury and a secondary that played without a pair of starters, Iowa pretty much had its way with the Fighting Illini.
The man-to-man defensive coverage played by Illinois positioned Stanley to get tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson more involved, and the pair combined for three first-half touchdown catches as Iowa grabbed a 35-0 halftime lead.
By the time Mekhi Sargent became the Hawkeyes’ first 100-yard rusher of the season — running for 121 of the 203 yards Iowa collected on the ground — the Hawkeyes had scored on a fumble return and a punt return to pile up its highest point total in Ferentz’s 20 seasons.
“It seemed like everything we tried worked,” Sargent said. “It was one of those days.”
Iowa broke the game open with a 28-point second quarter, scoring three touchdowns in a span of 2 minutes, 7 seconds early in the quarter.
Already owning a 7-0 advantage following a 9-yard Fant touchdown reception midway through the the first quarter — Fant’s first score in five games — the Hawkeyes quickly turned the game into a rout.
Things started innocently enough, with Sargent finishing off a seven-play drive with a 3-yard carry into the end zone, which doubled Iowa’s lead with 13:50 remaining in the first half.
Two-game changing plays by defensive end A.J. Epenesa sent Iowa on its way to putting an emphatic end to its first four-game losing streak since 2012.
Eight seconds after Sargent scored, the sophomore from Edwardsville found himself in the end zone, stripping the ball away from the Illini’s Ra’Von Bonner and returning it 19 yards for the touchdown.
“It’s something we work on every day in practice, strip and scoop, strip and scoop, and it worked the way it is supposed to,” Epenesa said.
Illinois went three and out on the ensuing possession, and Epenesa blocked a Blake Hayes punt attempt.
Nick Niemann returned the block seven yards to the Illinois 11-yard line, where Stanley hit Hockenson with the first of the two second-quarter touchdown receptions.
His 11-yard catch with 11:43 remaining in the half was followed by a 37-yard strike with 5:10 to go in the half that led Iowa into the locker room with a 35-0 edge at the break.
“The way they defended us, the one-on-one coverage, it opened some things up for those guys,” said Stanley, who completed 13-of-21 passes for 178 yards as part of a 400-yard performance by the Hawkeye offense.
“We were able to get everybody involved. Everybody in all three phases had it working,” Stanley said.
Ferentz, winning his 150th game at Iowa, called it his team’s most complete performance of the season.
“We played with a purpose. We played with a resolve,” Ferentz said. “We were sharp on offense, we were disruptive on defense and we were opportunistic on special teams.”
That combination left Illinois (4-7, 2-6 Big Ten) with no way out.
The Fighting Illini’s Bonner did rush for 111 yards on 21 carries, but Bush connected on just 12-of-28 passes, was sacked three times and watched teammates dropped for losses on eight other plays.
“We knew we were going to have to come in and play well,” Iowa free safety Jake Gervase said. “Their offense had been so explosive, and they had our attention. We have to come out and play assignment football and not back down. We got that done.”
That effort extended into the second half, when Iowa (7-4, 4-4) extended its lead when Illinois’ first drive of half stalled and Kyle Groeneweg scored on a 61-yard punt return for a score.
“Any shutout is good, but getting back to playing Iowa football, that was big for us. We needed this,” Hooker said.
An Amani Hooker interception on the ensuing possession set up a 5-yard touchdown run that gave the Hawkeyes a 49-0 lead with 8:11 left in the quarter, a margin which grew following touchdown runs of 29 and 14 yards by Sargent and Toren Young in the fourth quarter.