By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – The Iowa football team will enter the bye week with plenty of things for its fans to worry about and obsess over, but also with some much-needed momentum.
Iowa ended the first half of the regular season on a high note by defeating a pesky Illinois squad 45-16 before an announced homecoming crowd of 69,894 on Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.
The game was closer than many expected and closer than the final score indicated as Illinois stayed within striking distance until unraveling in the fourth quarter.
Iowa scored 21 consecutive points in the fourth quarter and improved to 4-2 overall and 1-2 in the Big Ten heading into the bye week.
The Hawkeyes now have two weeks to heal and prepare for their next game on Oct. 21st against Northwestern in Evanston, Ill.
“We’ve got to celebrate for tonight and then we’ve got to move on,” said Iowa senior running back Akrum Wadley, who rushed for 115 yards and scored two touchdowns in Saturday’s game. “The bye week get some guys healthy and just keep going and get back to doing what we do best.”
The question is what does this Iowa team do best? It seems to change each week.
You figured that Iowa’s strength would be its rushing attack and its front seven on defense, but there has only been glimpses of that so far this season.
The passing attack figured to struggle due to inexperience, and has at times. But sophomore quarterback Nate Stanley threw three touchdown passes on Saturday and now has 15 on the season, along with just two interceptions.
Iowa’s two losses to Penn State and Michigan State came by a combined nine points, but its victory over Iowa State also came by just three points in overtime.
So you could argue that Iowa is agonizingly close to being undefeated, but also close to being 3-3 at this stage.
One thing that can’t be argued is that Iowa still is very much a work in progress on both sides of the line of scrimmage.
Illinois rushed for 200 yards in Saturday’s game, which nearly doubled its 106.0 per-game average that was ranked last in the Big Ten.
Iowa finished with a respectable 441 yards on Saturday, but that was five fewer yards than what Illinois gained.
“We’re thrilled to get the victory and it was really a welcomed win for us and a decisive win for our football team,” said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. “It didn't come easy and we didn't expect it to. Illinois came in prepared for a real good football game and I thought they really fought hard.
“I was very proud of our guys. I thought it was a real team effort.”
The final score might have pointed to a decisive win, but those who watched Saturday’s game know differently.
Illinois entered the game as a 16-point underdog, but led 13-10 late in the second quarter and only trailed 17-13 at halftime.
The fourth quarter started with Iowa clinging to a 24-16 lead and with a first down at the Illinois 40-yard line.
Stanley then connected with a wide open Matt VandeBerg over the middle on second down for a 39-yard touchdown pass with 14 minutes, 22 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
Miguel Recinos converted his 17th consecutive point-after kick to expand Iowa’s lead to, 31-16. The Mason City native also made a 37-yard field goal in the second quarter and now has made 5-of-6 field-goal attempts for the season.
The only real positive from the first half besides the sun finally breaking through the clouds is that Iowa led 17-13 when it ended, thanks to a 13-play, 75-scoring drive late in the second quarter that was capped by a 2-yard touchdown catch by Wadley.
Illinois racked up 252 yards in the first half, including 151 on the ground.
Lovie Smith's young squad entered the game ranked last in the conference in multiple statistical categories, but it was hard to tell in the first half as Illinois converted on 4-of-6 third-down plays.
The first half was weird in that neither team punted despite being offensively challenged.
Iowa lined up to punt late in the second quarter, but instead ran a fake that worked brilliantly as sophomore defensive back Amani Hooker took the snap and then ran 18 yards for a first down to the Illinois 23.
Wadley scored the go-ahead touchdown five plays later to give Iowa the lead and momentum heading into the third quarter.
The momentum didn’t last long, though, as Iowa was forced to punt on its first two offensive possessions in the third quarter.
The fans kept waiting for somebody to make a big play and it finally came from the unlikeliest of sources as junior free safety Brandon Snyder returned an interception 89 yards for a touchdown with 6:40 left in the third quarter, expanding Iowa’s lead to 24-13.
Snyder was considered a long shot to play this season after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in April.
Remarkably, Snyder needed less than six months to recover from an injury that usually takes eight to 12 months to heal.
And he came back just in time because his team needed him on Saturday. Iowa needed Snyder’s physicality, awareness and leadership because the Fighting Illini were not the pushover that many expected them to be.
“It was a really cool moment just to run into a stand full of Iowa fans in the end zone,” Snyder said. “It’s great way to come back, that’s for sure.”
Snyder’s comeback wouldn’t have been nearly as cool if Iowa had lost on Saturday.
For a while, it looked as if that might happen, but the better team ultimately prevailed.
“It builds a lot of confidence for us, being able to get back on track,” said Stanley, who has 1,290 passing yards for the season. “And it shows that what we’re doing in the weight room and the film room is paying off for us.”
Iowa’s goals still are within reach, but the margin for error has shrunk considerably because of the two conference losses.
Saturday’s victory was a step in the right direction because there is no such thing as a bad win, especially against a Big Ten opponent.
But it also was a reminder that Iowa is vulnerable and suspect in many areas and that could prove costly down the stretch.
Illinois just wasn’t good enough to make Iowa pay on Saturday.