The Iowa train just keeps on rolling, and it’s unclear at this point who -- if anyone -- is going to stop it.
The No. 22 Hawkeyes got a stiff challenge from Illinois at home on Saturday, but went back to basics to close out a 29-20 victory at Kinnick Stadium. Kirk Ferentz’s team is 6-0 overall and 2-0 in the Big Ten in a surprisingly resurgent season in Iowa City.
Jordan Canzeri led the way with a enormous day, running an Iowa record 43 times for a career-high 256 yards and a score. His workhorse effort helped hold off the Illini, which hurt itself with two second-half turnovers.
What the win means for Iowa: The Hawkeyes have already clinched bowl eligibility, but they have a lot more in their sights now. Next week’s game at No. 13 Northwestern is a crucial one; if Iowa wins in Evanston, it will be in clear control of the West Division race with the following, highly manageable remaining schedule: Maryland, at Indiana, Minnesota, Purdue, at Nebraska. The biggest concern for Ferentz’s team right now is an injury to star defensive end Drew Ott, who was on crutches in the second half after hurting his right knee on the punt coverage team.
What the loss means for Illinois: The Illini lost, but they put up another good fight one week after upsetting Nebraska at home. The defensive front looks much improved, and guys like Chunky Clements and Dawuane Smoot gave Iowa all kinds of trouble in the trenches. Illinois managed to hang around despite not having do-everything running back Josh Ferguson (shoulder), which made the offense rather one-dimensional. If they can maintain this kind of effort and get a little luck in the health department (standout receiver Geronimo Allison took a scary hit on the sidelines late), the 4-2 Illini should be able to make a bowl.
Player of the game: Canzeri. When Iowa needed him most Canzeri came through. Illinois gained control of the momentum early in the second half, putting together two nice drives for field goals, and the Hawkeyes looked listless. Enter Canzeri, who proceeded to rip off a 75-yard touchdown run. When the Illini cut the lead to 23-20 in the fourth quarter, the Hawkeyes fed Canzeri over and over again to bleed out the clock (something Nebraska coaches inexplicably failed to do last week in Champaign). He ran the first 11 times of that drive, which ended with a field goal for Iowa.
Unsung hero: Iowa freshman receiver Jerminic Smith had no career catches coming into Saturday. He caught four balls for 113 yards against Illinois, including a 49-yarder and a 46-yarder to convert two third-and-longs in the first half. The Hawkeyes could use another weapon in the passing game for C.J. Beathard with Tevaun Smith recovering from injury, and the younger Smith might just give them that.