Down 9 at halftime and then 10 after three quarters, on the road, mind you, Illinois never gave up against its Big Ten rival. It’s almost a shame that both programs appear to be on an upswing at the same time because this one was there for the taking, if the Hawkeyes didn’t have their act pretty much together. The Illini had many reasons to fold their tents and just head back to Champaign with heads hanging low, never more than following Iowa RB Jordan Canzeri’s 75-yard TD run wiped away the visitors’ dominance out of the break and extended the margin to 23-13 with 2:45 to go in the third. Eventually, the Illini responded with a seven-play, 85-yard drive capped by QB Wes Lunt’s 53-yard TD strike to WR Geronimo Allison. They even had the stage set to win the game at end, getting the ball back at their own 25 with 3:20 remaining … only to see freshman RB Ke’Shawn Vaughn fumble on the first play. At this point, they’d need Iowa to lose somewhere along the line in order to have a shot to play in the conference title game, but they’re not out of it, and with efforts like this there is no reason to believe they couldn’t win out themselves.
2. There is reason for despair
Decisions on the sidelines and on the field too often seem poised to spell doomsday for the Illini. The offensive braintrust of interim head coach Bill Cubit and assistant/son Ryan Cubit proves to be a never-ending tease to me. Yes, the production, in terms of yardage and points, has improved immeasurably since the elder Cubit arrived three years ago. But the sideline throws that cover 30 yards to net just 3, or less, yards of actual real estate forever gnaw at the common-sense synapses. The choice to re-insert Vaughn into the backfield for that fateful fumble after he had last been seen having his mind scrambled by a Hawkeyes’ gang-tackling drive-by along the sideline was, well, it was stupid. The kid wasn’t ready to be back in there. Even more stupid was Lunt calling an audible on that play, opting out of a pass play to get the ball to Vaughn, who coughed it up on the slightest of contact. Yeah, that’s asking a lot of Lunt to know the real deal better than his coaches, but, as a leader, he needs to override them and either send the kid back to the sideline or not force-feed him the ball because that’s what normal protocol in a normal situations calls for. It is such stubborn, ignore-the-current-obvious-situation that has cost the Illini several games in the past few years. They have to be smarter, and more adaptable, because they don’t have the talent to overcome such brain-dead mistakes. That running play with V’Angelo Bentley, down 29-20 with two minutes to go, was sheer brilliance, too, huh?
3. Some serious tools in place on offense
Even with running-receiving threat Josh Ferguson out (shoulder), the Illini offense racked up 363 total yards. Vaughn filled in admirably, accumulating 116 yards from scrimmage, including one catch that covered 32 yards and one run that covered 18. Should Ferguson not return, the team seems OK, at worst, at RB. Lunt may be college football’s ultimate enigma. Man, does he throw a nice ball, and sometimes he is just the toughest sumbitch out there with the hits he takes, then dusts himself off and come right back with a thread-the-needle pass. But then he’ll miss easy, wide-open throws. Or panic when there seems to be no pressure. Or just look plain off. He was a non-factor Saturday in the first half, which is pretty hard for a QB to be. Then, after the break, he dominated, rallying the Illini from the dead with 228 yards of almost effortless aerial theatrics. It doesn’t hurt he has a wideout the caliber of Allison, who hauled in eight catches for 148 yards. Thing is, the offense, even with the positives so obvious, is just so darn inconsistent … and too often it has the ball for far too short a period. The Illini lost the time of possession battle by 12 minutes to Iowa, and the number of plays one by 15. Not good.
4. Defense takes a step back
It’s nice that LB T.J. Neal registered a game-high 14 tackles and DL Jihad Ward reached double figures, too, with 11. But they’re not making impact-type plays. Between the two of them, there was a total of one tackle for loss. LB Mason Monheim added nine tackles, but none of them were even solo. Sorry, these are your stalwart defenders and they’re doing little more than accumulating meaningless data. On the other hand, DE Dawuane Smooth, who had a critical sack against Nebraska last week, got another sack this week and, while he only had four total tackles, three of them were behind the line of scrimmage, and Chunky Clements added two TFLs himself. The slap-in-the-face reality with this game, though, was that the Hawkeyes exposed the Illini’s run defense. Hardly stout up to this point, it was as close to a sieve as possible at Iowa City, giving up 278 yards on a 5.5 yards per pop average. Even worse, Illinois knew it was going to get a steady diet of Canzeri and failed miserably in stopping him. As the junior set a school record with 43 carries for 256 yards.
5. Gotta give Nike credit
Wasn’t completely enamored with the rebranding when it was unveiled back in April of 2014, but, man, you go into Iowa City on a fall Saturday and don’t get run out of the building in the uniform battle … that’s saying something. The Illini broke out a white-white-blue combo for the first time that, frankly, isn’t even the best options they have away from Memorial Stadium. But it didn’t matter. They held their own against the Hawkeyes’ classic, black-black-yellow, Pittsburgh Steelers-like motif that ranks among the best in the nation for eternity. The preference in road-wear here would be orange-white-orange, or blue-white-blue (which has yet to be seen), and the white-white-orange they wore during the Reilly O’Toole-driven stretch drive last season was sweet. But, seriously, kudos to Nike. It has outfitted the Illini in eye-appealing style for every occasion on the gridiron.
- Jack Kerwin | firstname.lastname@example.org