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The Morning After: Illinois

One step closer to a 10-win season

NCAA Football: Illinois at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re looking for optimism following Iowa’s 19-10 win over a rising Illinois team, this isn’t the place to be. A win is a win, and that’s all that matters. But a peak behind the box score reveals more.

I’ll do a compliment sandwich: you can’t understate getting a win on senior day. As Kirk Ferentz said in the postgame, they’ve lost a couple of those in seasons past and that is not a great feeling. Beating a border rival that’s starting to catch up to Iowa in recruiting is important, and it’s also important to remember Lovie Smith is 0-4 against Ferentz.

I’m glad Nate Stanley got a win in his last game at Kinnick. He’s been a polarizing quarterback in his three years as a starter, and his numbers today speak to that—but he made the plays he needed to at the times we needed them most today.

Today’s win was also special because it was Kirk’s 96th at Iowa. That benchmark ties him fourth-all time in Big Ten history—knotting him with his predecessor Hayden Fry, of all people. He’s got a pretty good shot at surpassing his mentor’s totals in a week at Nebraska.

So, on to the nitty gritty: I’m not sure what to make of this win. Iowa’s offense sputtered after a convincing first drive where it went 75 yards. Iowa converted a 4th-and-6 at Illinois’ 31-yard line after a beautiful Stanley pass to Ihmir Smith-Marsette.

ISM had a career-high 121 yards on 4 catches yesterday and was mugged on at least 2 other plays that would’ve added to his total. Iowa’s receivers (and tight ends!) had a pretty good day despite a handful of drops. Stanley does have a hand cannon, but they know that, and if the ball hits your hands, you catch it. Thems the rules. All in all, this game was a microcosm of the season, at least offensively.

Our quarterback threw for 308 yards, but at a 50 percent clip, with no touchdowns and a really bad interception that would’ve gone for a big gain if it was on target. Stanley left another touchdown on the board in the first half on a seam to either Nate Wieting or Shaun Beyer, I can’t remember. I will remember that missing those passes was not an aberration during the Stanley era, however.

Another thing I’ll remember of the Stanley era was the lack of a truly elite running game. Iowa had just 93 yards on the ground today, with 22 of those coming from Stanley himself. None more important than a QB keeper that sealed the deal for Iowa late the fourth, coupled with a handful of under-center sneaks.

He was able to use his feet in conjunction with his arm, too:

Tyler Goodson is the future of Iowa’s running game, but I’m not sure what the future of what Iowa’s run-blocking scheme is. I’m certain two of Iowa’s offensive line starters will return next year, which leaves me with fear and hope at the same time.

As frustrating as Iowa’s offense was, there’s the confidence we can have in Phil Parker and his unit. On the defense, I’d give the game ball to another senior despite a handful of guys making big plays. Kristian Welch had 12 tackles, a forced fumble and the sack that put the game to bed.

Iowa missed Welch in the games he was injured, and he made his return last week very known. The future at middle linebacker is likely Dillon Doyle, but he has big shoes to fill. Welch won’t receive the attention or accolades as previous Iowa linebackers, but he was something to watch in his own right in his 2 12 years or so as a starter.

Senior Michael Ojemudia notched an interception on Illinois’ first drive of the game. Matt Hankins had another on a flea-flicker, reminding us why Brandon Peters transferred from Michigan in the first place. OJ has been the best corner among a group of average corners this year, and the team has really missed him when he’s been out as well.

Sure, no one predicted Brandon Peters leading the game with 76 rushing yards on 10 carries; Illinois’ 192 yards on the ground are troubling, but they were mostly harmless as they couldn’t punch it in. We love us some bend-don’t-break, and if it ain’t broke...

It wouldn’t be an Iowa football game if it wasn’t filled with excitement, frustration, despair, aggravation, and eventually, jubilee. Sure, it seems like this coaching staff likes to make things harder on themselves for no reason. And you can argue with the results, but this is the hand we’re dealt. Iowa got to sing the victory polka. Illinois had a silent bus ride to Champaign.

All this it to say: Iowa has 8 wins banked going into Nebraska, with what should be a respectable bowl game looming.

Losing to Michigan sucked, losing to Penn State sucked, losing to Wisconsin SUCKED, but I think 10 wins is always the goal. It’s easy to look back and think of the season that slipped through our fingers, but dwelling on past girlfriends is a fruitless exercise. Let’s enjoy Nate Stanley and Michael Ojemudia and Krisitan Welch and Brady Reiff while we still. You only get one chance a year to beat Nebraska, after all.