By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Senior Day turned into a nervous, nail-biting day for Iowa for football fans as a pesky and much-improved Illinois squad threatened to pull off an upset before losing 19-10 at Kinnick Stadium.
Iowa finally quelled the upset bid when Keith Duncan made his fourth field goal of the game from 29 yards to give Iowa a 19-10 lead with 2 minutes, 44 seconds left to play.
The Hawkeyes improved to 8-3 overall and 5-3 in the Big Ten, while Illinois fell to 6-5 and 4-4 in the conference.
Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz also tied Hayden Fry with 96 Big Ten victories, while also earning a $500,000 bonus for winning eight games.
"Obviously, we're thrilled to get the victory," Ferentz said. "It was a competitive, tough November Big Ten football game, and that's fully what we expected coming into this thing.
"Every conference game is earned, every victory is earned, and every game is important, too, and our guys understand that and did understand that. I told them early in the week, I think it's the first point I made Tuesday, this Illinois team is nothing remotely close to the one we played last year, and last year's chain of events, just the game got away before it was ever a ballgame."
Iowa was clinging to a 16-10 lead midway through the fourth quarter when Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters fumbled near midfield on a running play. Iowa linebacker Kristian Welch forced the fumble and it was recovered by free safety Jack Koerner at the Illinois 47-yard line with 7:46 left to play..
Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley passed for 308 yards in his final game at Kinnick Stadium, and the Iowa defense stiffended when it had to while allowing just one touchdown and 125 passing yards.
Saturday's game was a drastic change from last season when Iowa crushed Illinois 63-0 in Champaogn, Ill.
The Fighting Illini have improved dramatically under fourth-year head coach Lovie Smith and that was apparent with how thye played on Saturday..
Stanley certainly missed on some throws and struggled with efficiency throughout the game, but he also made a few spectacular plays, highlighted by his 40-yard pass to Ihmir Smith-Marsette late in the third quarter that gave Iowa a first down at the Illinois 15.
Stanley was close to being sacked on the play, but he broke loose from his defender and rolled to his left before hitting Smith-Marsette in stride near the Illinois sideline.
However, as was the case with so many of Iowa’s drives on Saturday, it stalled in the red zone and ended with Duncan making his third field goal of the game and his Big Ten record 26th on the season to give Iowa a 16-7 lead with 14:08 remaining.
Illinois took the opening kick of the third quarter and drove to the Iowa 21-yard line. But the drive ended abruptly as Iowa cornerback Matt Hankins intercepted a pass thrown by Peters in the end zone
That drive was indicative of Illinois performnace on offense in how it ended with the Fighting llini having self-destructed.. .
Iowa took the opening kick of the game and then marched 75 yards for a touchdown on nine plays. Goodson capped the drive with a 2-yard touchdown run with 10:16 remaining in the first quarter.
Stanley completed all three of his passes on the drive, including a 29-yard gain to Ihmir Smith-Marsette on 4th-and-6 in which Stanley scrambled from the pocket and found Smith-Marsette at the Illini 2-yard line.
Goodson then scored on the next play from scrimmage.
Illinois’ first offensive possession ended after just three plays when Iowa cornerback Michael Ojemudia intercepted a pass at the Illini 43.
Stanley then connected with tight end Nate Wieting for 23 yards on the first play, giving Iowa a first down at the Illinois 20.
However, the drive stalled after Stanley threw three incomplete passes, and then Iowa failed to get any points as Duncan’s 43-yard field goal attempt hit the left the crossbar.
Illinois then needed less than 2 minutes to even the score as receiver Danny Navarro capped a 75-yard scoring drive by catching a 31-touchdown pass from quarterback Brandon Peters with 6:26 left in the first quarter.
Navarro had slipped past the Iowa secondary and was wide open when Peters threw to him.
Iowa retook the lead at 10-7 when Keith Duncan made a 23-yard field goal with 9:34 left in the second quarter.
The drive was sort of symbolic of Iowa’s season on offense in that Stanley and his cohorts made some nice plays along the way, including a 40-yard pass to tight end Shaun Beyer, but they still had to settle for a field goal despite having reached the Illinois 5-yard line.
Proof of Iowa’s red zone woes this season is that Duncan entered Saturday’s game having made 23 field goals and 21 point-after kicks.
Iowa had driven into Illinois territory again in the second quarter, but this drive ended when Illinois safety Sidney Brown intercepted Stanley’s pass and returned it eight yards to the the Illinois 19.
Stanley was trying to throw to tight end Nate Wieting, but the ball sailed over Wieting’s head and Brown was there to make the interception.
The Iowa defense then forced Illinois into a 3-and-out, but the Iowa offense failed to capitalize on the field position as Duncan missed a field goal from 47 yards late in the second quarter. There were two plays on the drive in which Stanley missed open receivers by throwing high.
Iowa had one final possession in the second quarter that consisted of just two plays, including a 22-yard pass from Stanley to Tyrone Tracy Jr. that moved the ball to the Illini 27.
That was enough for Duncan, who made a 45-field goal at time expired to give Iowa a 13-7 lead at the break.
Stanley passed for 212 yards in the first half, but he also had several throws in which he missed open receivers, usually by throwing high.
Illinois 7 0 0 3 - 10
Iowa 7 6 0 6 - 19
I – Tyler Goodson 2 run (Keith Duncan kick)
IL – Donny Navarro 31 pass from Brandon Peters (James McCourt kick)
I – Keith Duncan 23 FG
I – Duncan 45 FG
I – Duncan 24 FG
IL – James McCourt 29 FG