Iowa 28, Illinois 0
CHAMPAIGN - Looking for offense? Look elsewhere.
On a blustery, cold day with almost as many yellow-and-black wearing fans in Memorial Stadium as those in orange and blue, Illinois failed to score a touchdown for the second straight game and punted on its first 10 possessions -- before an interception interrupted that streak and it was followed by a turnover on downs -- in its third straight loss to the Hawkeyes (7-4, 4-3 Big Ten)
For the third time this season, Illinois (3-8, 2-6) was held to 200 or fewer yards, finishing with just 198 yards (3.0 yards per play).
In his final game at Memorial Stadium, Wes Lunt completed 19 of 41 passes for 137 yards and threw a third-quarter interception to Desmond King. Zach Grant had career-high eight receptions for a career-high 65 yards.
The Illini managed just 21 rushing yards when factoring in three Lunt sacks for minus-37 yards. Kendrick Foster led Illinois with 50 rushing yards on 16 carries.
The Illinois defense held Iowa to 342 yards and forced two turnovers, a Dillan Cazley interception and a Tre Watson forced a fumble. But Iowa punt returner Riley McCarron returned a line-drive punt 55 yards for a touchdown for the game's first score with 4:33 left in the second quarter.
Then LeShun Daniels (151 yards on 26 carries) scored two second-half touchdowns, walking in for a one-yard touchdown with 7:51 left in the third quarter and racing for a 50-yard touchdown with 7:17 left in the fourth quarter. Akrum Wadley (82 yards on 16 carries) added the exclamation point with a two-yard touchdown with 4:41 remaining.
What it means
Illinois needs an influx of talent on offense before next season. It needs a quarterback who can make plays with his feet. That may be Chayce Crouch or a JuCo or grad transfer. They need an influx of play-makers at tight end and receiver. Expect incoming freshman Ricky Smalling to start from Day One, possibly with another freshman. The Illini need more strength up front. Expect incoming freshman Larry Boyd to start right away. The offense must be improved, especially since the defense loses four of its top players (Dawuane Smoot, Carroll Phillips, Chunky Clements and Hardy Nickerson). But even if Illinois loses just as much next year, fans at least want to be entertained -- unlike this season.
What went right
The Illini defense did its job, for the most part. It kept the game competitive until the final eight minutes of the game and held Iowa to just 80 passing yards. Iowa did steamroll a bit in the second half, especially with the game out of reach.
Tre Watson (15 tackles, 0.5 tackles, one forced fumble) continues to improve and emerge. The redshirt sophomore has blossomed the last few weeks, totaling (41 tackles, 2.0 TFLs) the last three games. Hardy Nickerson (10 tackles) topped 100 tackles on the season (102).
Zach Grant had a career day. He's the only guy who consistently got open, and even though he dropped some passes, he was Lunt's favorite target and delivered more often than not.
What went wrong
Special teams killed Illinois. David Reisner's line-drive punt out of the end zone was a perfect opportunity for a big return, and the Illini coverage was poor. Kendrick Foster bobbled a kick return and returned it for just eight yards to start a second quarter drive at the 15-yard line. Nate Echard then fumbled a kickoff return in the fourth quarter, giving Iowa the ball at the Illinois 21.
Illinois failed to score off two turnovers. After Dillan Cazley's second-quarter interception, Illinois elected to punt from the Iowa 37 with the wind at its back. The punt went into the end zone for a touch back, and a net of just 17 yards. On a day when points are a premium, that's a bit too conservative.
Lunt was uninspiring in his final career start. His receivers failed to get separation, but Lunt also failed to deliver when he did have opportunities. He continued to throw the ball short of the sticks on third downs too. His home career ended the way most will remember him: frustrating.
The Illini had several key drops, including a Grant drop on a would-be-first-down catch on third down and a Malik Turner drop on fourth down in the fourth quarter.
Illinois heads to Evanston for its final game of the season. The Illini lead the all-time series 55-49-5 with Northwestern winning three of the last four. Illinois won the last game in Evanston, a 47-33 win to end the 2014 regular season and clinch bowl eligibility. With eight losses already, Illinois cannot make a bowl and will just be looking to spoil Northwestern's finale (and possibly a bowl bid). The Wildcats (5-5) play at Minnesota (7-3) this afternoon.