Howe: Hawkeyes Take Out Frustrations on Illinois

November 17, 2018

Written by Rob Howe

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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz told his team this week it had choices. It could feel sorry for itself and pack it in or pick itself back up and stay together.

The Hawkeyes chose the latter. They pounded hapless Illinois, 63-0, Saturday here at Memorial Stadium.

For context, they beat up an awful team. The Illini should have been embarrassed by the product they put on the field. Had it been a prize fight, the trainers would have thrown in the towel during Iowa’s 28-point second quarter. It looked like the varsity versus the junior high.

That’s not the Hawkeyes’ problem, though. That’s an issue for Illinois coach Lovie Smith and his athletic director, Josh Whitman. Good luck with that.

Iowa couldn’t change that it had lost its previous three games. It couldn’t get back into the Big Ten title hunt. But it was playing for pride and it showed plenty of it.

Things might have gone sideways when quarterback Nate Stanley threw an interception on the team’s opening drive. With the four gut-punch losses they sustained this season, the players could have hung their heads. Instead, it turned out being one of the few bad things to happen to them on this day.

The Hawkeyes dominated in all three phases. They scored touchdowns on offense, defense and special teams. They took out their frustrations on Illinois.

“Obviously things haven’t gone the last three weeks how we wanted, but we still believed in each other and we believed in ourselves,” senior defensive end Parker Hesse said. “We came out today and we just really had to let it rip, just be ourselves and play hard. And that’s what we did today, kind of exorcised from demons.”

Again, they didn’t beat the 1985 Bears. But it was a Big Ten team that blew out Minnesota, 55-31, here earlier this month. The Gophers hammered Purdue last week after the Boilermakers topped Iowa.

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It wasn’t just that the Hawkeyes won on Saturday, they delivered a historically dominating performance. The 63-point margin of victory was the largest in the 20-year Ferentz era. It was their largest shutout win since a 66-0 rout of Northern Iowa in ’97 and the largest Big Ten victory since a 64-0 triumph over Northwestern in ’81. It matched the most lopsided loss in Illinois history.

“I’m really proud of our guys, our team, the resiliency they demonstrated and showed not only today but I think all week long. We had a really good week of preparation. Today was just a total team victory,” Ferentz said.

“Our goal was for our team to play with purpose, play with resolve and hopefully show some toughness today. I think the guys did that.”

Iowa ground through a battle of field position in the first quarter before breaking it open in Period 2. It scored three touchdowns in 2:07 to lead 28-0 with 11:43 left before halftime. The Illini had been emasculated.

A running game that had been missing in action showed up with 203 yards on 37 carries (5.5 YPC) Saturday. The Hawkeyes averaged 3.3 per attempt during the three-game losing streak.

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Sophomore Mehki Sargent rushed 17 times for 121 yards and two touchdowns. He became the first Hawkeye to eclipse 100 yards on the ground in a game this season.

A.J. Epenesa positioned himself to be the Big Ten defensive player of the week. The super sophomore, who had 120-150 family members and friends at the game in his home state, racked up 3.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. He forced a fumble and returned it for a touchdown and also blocked a punt. That happened when Iowa took control at the beginning of the second quarter.

“That completely changed the momentum, the feel of the game, totally. He completely broke it open for us,” Hesse said of Epenesa’s barrage of plays.

The Hawkeye losing streak drew attention to the lack of snaps being played by all-American tight end Noah Fant. That drama was silenced quickly on Saturday when the junior from Omaha played the first 25 plays of the game. He led the winners with 3 catches for 54 yards and delivered the game’s first touchdown.

“I just go in when I’m supposed to and do the best I can when I’m out there. That’s the approach I have to take with it. That’s the approach that will allow me to produce the best on the field,” Fant said.

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He added that it’s up to the coaches when to play him and he just wants to win.

And that’s really what everybody in this locker room wanted. They’ve desired it all year but came up on the wrong side of four close games.

“I think it shows that nobody’s quit, nobody has given up on the season. Everybody is still fully invested and really looking forward to continuing to do something special,” said quarterback Nate Stanley, who completed 13 of 21 passes for 178 yards and three touchdowns.

The Hawkeyes finish up the regular season on Friday when they play host to rival Nebraska for the Heroes Trophy. The Huskers under first-year coach Scott Frost are riding a two-game winning streak into the contest and have won four of their last five.

While it’s not for a championship, the game is important for optics. An Iowa loss to its rebuilding rivals will create more unrest with a fan base disappointed already in how things have turned out this season.

The Hawkeyes know that.

“Those three losses in a row obviously hurt and we’re not where we wanted to be. At the same time, we stuck together through the last couple of weeks and now it’s on to Nebraska,” senior safety Jake Gervase said.

“Hopefully we can finish Senior Day out on a strong note and get win No. 8 and then we’ll think about the bowl game after that. But as of now, it’s all about Nebraska.”

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