Sunday morning has a familiar feeling once again for Iowa Hawkeye fans. Again on Saturday, the Hawkeyes came away with a win but again the victory feels somehow unfulfilling, dissatisfying.
Illinois came out the aggressor and marched 75 yards over the course of 12 plays and nearly seven minutes to take an early lead. The Illini had no problem whatsoever dissecting Iowa’s zone defense as Brandon Peters completed six of seven passes, including a wide open 13-yarder to tight end Luke Ford to cap off the drive in paydirt.
The Iowa offense showed some life of their own in their initial drive, but stalled out on the Illinois side of the 50. Before Tory Taylor could pin Illinois deep in their own territory, he watched the snap dip between his legs and roll to the Iowa 28 yard line. The uncharacteristic special teams gaffe by the Hawkeyes led to another three points for the Illini and things looked to be going south in a hurry.
The special teams unit would quickly redeem themselves, however, as Charlie Jones took the ensuing kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown, securing the momentum back in Iowa’s corner.
It was the first strike in a string of 17 unanswered points by the Hawkeyes. Iowa would get their only offensive touchdown of the day on their next possession as Arland Bruce IV capped off a 50-yard drive that featured the Hawkeyes’ only truly explosive offensive play of the day, a 28-yard pitch and catch from Padilla to Bruce.
Beyond that, it was fits and starts for the Hawkeyes. Iowa did pummel Illinois to the tune of 172 rushing yards, but managed just 3.3 yards per carry. Through the air, it was worse. As noted, Iowa didn’t test Illinois deep very often and ultimately only amassed 83 passing yards on 18 attempts (4.6 yards per attempt).
New starter Alex Padilla threw his first interception as a Hawkeye on one of the few attempts downfield. While it was his only pick, he nearly threw at least one other. Making matters worse, Iowa receivers dropped a number of quality throws from Padilla.
But again, the defense tightened up as the game progressed and ultimately held a dangerous Illinois rushing attack to only 64 yards on the ground and 2.6 yards per carry. Phil Parker’s ball-hawking bunch came away with a pair of Brandon Peters interceptions, including a game clincher by Jack Campbell that was returned 32 yards for a touchdown.
The end result was a two-score victory for Iowa in their 8th consecutive win over Illinois. That pushes the Hawkeyes to 9-2 on the season and 5-2 in the Big Ten.
It’s a result that is both familiar for Iowa fans and no less frustrating. As with a season ago, the Hawkeyes are on the verge of finishing the year as a borderline top-15 team with a .750 winning percentage. But as with a season ago, Iowa is in need of help if they want to make a return trip to Indianapolis.
Whether Iowa finishes at 9-3 or 10-2, this will objectively be a successful season. Few teams in the country will achieve such a record and fewer will do so in a conference with five teams ranked in the CFP top-25.
And yet, it feels somehow disappointing. After knocking off a pair of ranked teams right out of the gate, taking down a then top-10 team on the road and then coming home to defend Kinnick against a top-5 Penn State team, finishing the year again the bridesmaid in the West is indeed a letdown.
But the football can only be pulled out from in front of you if you continue to step up to it expecting that this time will be different. The disappointment only sets in if you let the rollercoaster ride of the season erase from your memory the perspective of the offseason. That perspective that reminded us all this team was breaking in a slew of new faces on each side of the line and was likely to top out around 9-3. That perspective makes the prospect of a 10-2, top-15 finish a promising one.
That’s not how this season or this win feels. As Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding tells us in Shawshank Redemption, hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.
That’s what Hawkeye fans continue to fall victim to and this season has been no different. We all had our hopes up after that win over Penn State. We all had visions of Iowa actually putting it all together and giving us that coveted Big Ten title and potentially more.
Now with one week left and a trip to Lincoln on the docket, we’re doing it yet again. Hawkeye fans are collectively holding out a glimmer of hope that Iowa will win in Lincoln for a seventh straight victory over the Huskers and that Minnesota will put aside their hate for Iowa by knocking off the Wisconsin Badgers.
We do that because that’s the essence of being an Iowa fan. That’s the essence of being a fan period. If there’s no hope, what’s the point? And yet, deep down we all know there is no hope. We know that at the end of the day, we’ll again be disappointed and let down and wondering what if. Because that too is the essence of being a Hawkeye fan.
So we again find ourselves entering the final week of the regular season somewhere between hopeful that Iowa can redeem their earlier losses to Purdue and Wisconsin and certain that they can’t. However the next week plays out, this season has already been a hell of a ride and an unquestionable success, even if it’s been equal parts disappointing.
This is the way.