Iowa Stops Illini Win Streak

Iowa City--The Fighting Illini football team suffered a frustrating loss to the Iowa Hawkeyes in a defensive struggle at Kinnick Stadium Saturday, 10-6. After five straight wins, the last two against ranked opponents, the Illini were predictably unable to maintain intensity against another quality opponent.

"They (Iowa) can play, and we were coming into a hornet's nest," summarized Illini Coach Ron Zook. "I was concerned about energy levels; we expended a lot of energy in two big games back to back. We weren't quite sharp."

Coach Zook was sad about the loss, but he was also encouraged by how his charges behaved in the locker after the game.

"That's probably as devastated a locker room as maybe I've ever been in after a loss, which I think is good. I think that means it's important to them."

A misty drizzle greeted both teams at the start of the game and continued periodically thereafter. The weather, the "Black Out" where Iowa fans were supposed to wear black, and the loss all made for a truly dark day for Illini faithful. Weather and wearing apparel had little if any effect upon the outcome, but it certainly dampened the spirits of those hoping to see a quick Illini getaway.

The Illini were sluggish early, althought Iowa must be credited with a good game plan and solid defense. Whomever said the Hawkeye offensive line was their weak link forgot to tell them. Running backs Albert Young and Damian Sims found numerous openings and slasked for a combined 144 rushing yards on the day. And quarterback Jake Christensen complimented the ground game with an efficient passing attack that helped neutralize any Illini pass rush.

Iowa Defensive Coordinator Norm Parker and his charges did a better job slowing down Illinois' vaunted option running attack than any previous Illini opponent. Knowing quarterback Juice Williams was operating at less than 100% after hyperextending his knee last week, they stretched out the option and forced Juice to run. Williams did net 44 yards rushing on the day, but it was obvious he was slower than usual. This strategy also helped limit star running back Rashard Mendenhall's touches.

While this was not confirmed in postgame interviews, it also appeared the Illini tried to use receivers Arrelious Benn and Brian Gamble as decoys to protect them after they sustained injuries last week. With Juice, Benn and Gamble at less than full stgrength, the Illini struggled to penetrate an Iowa defense that gained confidence as the game went on.

Allowing Iowa to stay close encouraged Hawkeye players and their rabid fandom. By the time the fourth quarter arrived, it was anyone's ball game. It is asking a lot for a road team to come from behind in the last minutes, and the Illini simply fell short in their efforts.

Iowa's offense started strong by mixing Albert Young runs with short Christensen passes to move down the field. Will Davis and Derek Walker combined to throw Christensen for an 11 yard loss, and Martez Wilson's strong rush forced an errant pass to end Iowa's scoring chance, but Iowa had to be encouraged by their initial success.

As is usually true, Illinois moved the ball well in their first drive. However, the Iowa defense stiffened to force a Jason Reda 46 yard field goal. The Illini had the early lead at 3-0, but their failure to score a touchdown came back to haunt them later.

Iowa continued to move the chains on offense and take time off the clock. Even when the Hawkeye offense wasn't scoring, it was able to rest their defense, making their later play more effective. And they were keeping the ball away from the normally potent Illini offense. Iowa finally got on the board shortly before halftime with a 28 yard Daniel Murray field goal to tie the game at 3-3.

By halftime, the Illini had run 24 plays compared with 41 by Iowa. And the Hawkeyes held the ball nearly 8 minutes longer. Even though the score was tied, Iowa held a definite advantage that would prove decisive in the second half.

It seems many of Illinois' best drives occur with the first possession of each half, and the Iowa game was no exception. Receiving the kickoff to start the second half, the Illini mixed four pass plays with Mendenhall and Williams runs to move sharply down the field. Juice hit Gamble for 9 yards and Rashard on a shovel pass for 10 more. He then rolled left and threw back to his right to a wide open Benn for a 33 yard gain. This was followed by a 12 yard strike to tight end Michael Hoomanawanui over the middle. But again Iowa stifffened, forcing a 23 yard Reda field goal for a tenuous 6-3 lead.

Poor field position began to haunt the Illini. Iowa gained more yardage in their next possession than the Illini did in return. When Anthony Santella's one poor punt on the day sailed only 28 yards, Iowa had excellent field position at the Illinois 46 yard line.

Moving mostly on the ground, the Hawkeyes chewed up chunks of real estate. With six seconds left in the third quarter, Christensen hit tight end Brandon Myers for a 20 yard touchdown that proved to be the game winner.

Safety Justin Harrison explained the mixup that led to Myers being wide open.

"They stacked two tight ends one behind the other. One went out and one went in. There was a little miscommunication between myself and the linebacker. Brit (Miller) thought he had a guy and I thought I had a guy, and it ended up being the same guy. So we left a guy uncovered."

The situation looked hopeless when Juice Williams fumbled the ball over to Iowa on Illinois' next possession. This was especially true when the Hawkeyes appeared headed for another touchdown. Fortunately for the Illini, Christensen fumbled a snap over to Chris Norwell, giving the ball back to Illinois on their own 11 yard line.

Eddie McGee took over at quarterback for the Illini. On his second play, he threw a perfect long-distance strike to Joe Morgan streaking down the sideline. Morgan outraced the Hawkeye secondary for what appeared to be an 82 yard touchdown. Unfortunately, Hoomanawanui was ruled illegally downfield, nullifying the touchdown. A receiver outside Hoomanawanui lined up on the line of scrimmage, making Michael an ineligible receiver.

With time waning and the game in the balance, the Illini had one last chance and almost pulled it out. Arrelious Benn showed his star power with two long pass-run plays that moved the ball down to the Iowa 12 yard line. However, McGee then threw an interception that ended the threat and the game for the Illini.

Iowa fans streamed onto the field afterward, knocking down the breakaway goal posts and acting like they just whipped the National Champions. A few of their more infantile fans enjoyed throwing vile epithets toward the heartbroken Illini players as they trudged back to their locker. Such is the life of a nationally ranked team on the road.

Statistics don't always reflect the outcome of a game, but they do in this case. Iowa outgained Illinois 323 yards to 287. More importantly, they outgained Illinois both in the air and on the ground. The Illini's meager total of 137 rushing yards was nearly half their season average, a tribute to the stout Iowa defense.

With Iowa keying on Mendenhall, he was able to muster only 67 net yards on the ground in 15 carries. Rashard also caught three passes for 27 yards. Juice Williams completed 9 of 15 passes for 98 yards while Eddie McGee added three of five with his one interception. Benn led all receivers with 87 yards in four pass receptions.

Iowa must now regroup before an important night game next Saturday versus perennial power Michigan. But Coach Zook knows they will be ready.

"We still control our own destiny. As bad as we all feel, we still have five games to go."

Illini Inquirer Top Stories