Miller: Hawks Make Strides in 10-6 Win

Iowa's offense still isn't where it hopes to be by year's end, but they took some steps in the right direction on Saturday as the Hawks beat Illinois 10-6. Iowa put up over 300 yards of offense, but most importantly converted 10 of 17 third downs, and most of those attempts were manageable in the distance department. That meant Ioaw's defense wasn't on the field all day & it helped spell a win.

While it wasn't the same kind of emotion and situation we saw back in 2000 when Iowa snapped an ugly Big Ten losing streak against Michigan State at home, as the program was just on the rise, it felt somewhat similar today.

Iowa had lost eight-straight Big Ten games coming into today, the sky was overcast, as was the mood of the Hawkeye nation.

And in the end, Iowa gutted out a hard fought win where the offense took some strides towards growth, and the defense, who didn't have to be on the field all day, played an outstanding football game.

And as he was after that win in 2000, head coach Kirk Ferentz was on the verge of tears after Albert Young's last run of the day gave Iowa a first down, an sealed the win.

I am guessing a few Iowa fans were as well.

No, that doesn't mean the program is at the point where beating a ranked team is a reason to paint the town red.

But this was an ugly streak, and the mood of the fanbase was as ugly as it had been since 2000.

This took a huge monkey off the back of the football team, because Iowa beat one of the three best teams in the Big Ten, in my opinion, in a year where Iowa had been playing like one of the worst two teams in the league.

Coming into the game, the Illinois offense was running over people all season long. They looked a little bit like the Iowa running game from years gone by, with an option mixed in. Their offensive line was veteran, and running back Rashard Mendenhall was a dark horse Heisman trophy candidate. Illinois was averaging 261 rushing yards per game prior to Saturday, and they were held to 137 yards.

The Illini were averaging more than 30 points per game prior to kickoff, and they were held out of the endzone, and managed just two field goals.

They had a first and goal at the Iowa 2 in the second half, and the Hawks denied the Illini of paydirt. Mike Humpal turned in an 18 tackle performance. Jacody Coleman brought a lot of energy.

The Iowa offense also took some steps forward in this game.

I don't know if it was coincidence or providence, but in the second half, Iowa's offense began to click once Brian Bulaga and Dan Doering were inserted at guards. Both of those players come from the state of Illinois.

When Jake Christensen (17 of 25 for 182) set his feet on Saturday, he threw the ball well. Kirk Ferentz said that Christensen played the best game of his career. Paul Chaney made some huge plays, and took some mean hits, but held onto the football.

And the Iowa running game was solid, gaining 141 yards, but getting the yards Iowa needed when it had to have them. Albert Young had 25 totes for 99 yards on the day.

Iowa controlled the time of possession game in the first half, holding the ball for more than 19 minutes to 11 for Illinois. Iowa ran 41 plays in the first half, which is considerable in any game, much less for this offense that has been stymied in recent weeks.

For the game, the Hawkeyes had the ball for nine more minutes than did the Illini. And an Iowa defense certainly needed that. They also needed an offense to convert better than 29 percent of their third downs, which is the number Iowa had been at coming into the game. This week, Iowa was 10 of 17 on third downs.

Where Iowa faced an average of 3rd and 8 last week, it was 3rd and less than 6 this week. Six of their 10 conversions were 3rd and less than 5. That is a huge difference; the distance of the attempt.

That was the story of the game as far as I was concerned; getting into manageable third down situations. There were really just two instances that I can recall where Iowa took major negative plays on offense, and they were both on first down. Plus the turnover on first down from the Illinois 11, when miscommunication on the center exchange thwarted a great scoring opportunity.

But Iowa received a break of its own, when Illinois had an ineligible receiver on the line of scrimmage, covered up, that took a long Illinois TD off the board.

You might recall that it was the same penalty that saw seven points come off the board for Iowa last year against Texas in the Alamo Bowl.

So Iowa got some breaks today. Iowa made some breaks today. It's offense kept drives alive today, and it gave the defense a chance to fight.

This team doesn't have to score 30 points to win, if it can covert third downs and at least break even on time of possession.

They still have a lot of work to do on offense, but today they took a step.

And this week in practice, they will have an extra pep in their step, with that losing streak now behind them.

I have no idea what to expect the rest of the way, because I did not see this sort of game coming that we saw on Saturday.

I will sit back and enjoy the ride.

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