CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — With the stakes higher than ever under the bright lights at Memorial Stadium on Saturday night, the defenses shined the brightest.
After a game-winning touchdown drive gave Indiana the win in Week 1, the Illinois defense left Bloomington with a bad taste in their mouths.
Since then, Ryan Walters’ defense has been second to none.
In an incredible atmosphere, his guys faced a nearly identical chance to seal the game with a stop. This time around, they did just that, sealing a dramatic 9-6 win over Iowa.
“Couldn’t be happier for our players,” said head coach Bret Bielema.
Freshman kicker Fabrizio Pinton learned at kickoff that he would be replacing Caleb Griffin, and he made the most of it. His three field goals were the only points Illinois scored all game, with the third one being the biggest.
His go-ahead 36-yarder with 2:49 left gave Illinois (5-1, 2-1 Big Ten) the lead.
“I was just happy that me, [punter] Hugh [Robertson] and [long snapper] Lane Hansen could go out there and execute such a perfect field goal,” Pinton said.
In this good ol’ fashion slugfest, we knew it would come down to which defense played better. With 3 minutes to go in the game, neither was showing any signs of giving in.
Iowa’s defense seemingly scored the game’s first TD right before Pinton’s go-ahead kick. Backup QB Art Sitkowski — on a designed run?? — looked to have fumbled the ball, but his elbow was down, setting Illinois up for the go-ahead kick.
But that kick was followed by the biggest turnover of the game: a late Illini interception by freshman DB Matthew Bailey right as the Hawkeyes were starting to threaten.
Iowa (3-3, 1-2 Big Ten) got one more chance with the ball and no timeouts, but the offense wasn’t able to move the ball past midfield. A final play that consisted of many laterals went no where, and Memorial Stadium took a big sigh of relief.
HOW IT HAPPENED
While the game was defense-heavy, it started in a promising direction for Bret Bielema’s offense. A 16-play, 66-yard drive ending in a 26-yard field goal.
Iowa would follow that drive with a field goal of its own, tying the game at 3.
The Hawkeyes’ defensive challenge became much easier when starting quarterback Tommy DeVito left the game in the first quarter with an apparent ankle injury. He never returned, with the Illini forced to bring in Sitkowski.
“I don’t know the extent of it yet,” said Bielema on DeVito’s injury. “I haven’t seen him.”
Once Sitkowski took over, the Illini went back into Hawkeye territory and settled for their second field goal of the game, taking the lead 6-3.
But with the Illini backup in the game, the offense had to really rely on RB Chase Brown to be the workhorse.
“I knew Chase would kind of grind it out and wear them down,” Bielema said.
Brown rushed for 146 yards, but the offense failed to take advantage of his continued production.
Neither team threatened to score again until the fourth quarter, where the Illini used a Sitkowski 34-yard pass to Brian Hightower to get deep into Iowa territory.
What seemed like a drive that would end in a score actually resulted in the Hawkeyes’ biggest defensive play of the night. When they needed it most, Iowa DB Quinn Schulte intercepted Sitkowski on their 1-yard line, keeping the game knotted at 6.
The Illini defense would then force another key 3-and-out which gave the offense the ball back in plus territory. They made the most of it with what would be the game-winning kick.
This thrilling nail-biter was the first win for the Illini over the Hawkeyes since 2008. Illinois now sits atop the Big Ten West along with Purdue and Nebraska at 2-1.
“I couldn’t be more excited to be a 5-1 football team,” Bielema said.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
- Receiver Isaiah Williams was responsible for the two first-half turnovers: a fumble and a muffed punt. The crucial mistakes only led to three Iowa points, but those three didn’t prove to be the difference in this low-scoring affair.
- Iowa kicker Drew Stevens missed a 45-yard field goal at the end of the first half that would have put them up 9-6. The final score ended up being the other way around.
- With the Illini threatening deep in Iowa territory, Sitkowski threw an interception on the 1-yard-line. Any form of points would’ve given Illinois the lead midway through the fourth, but the score remained tied at 6.
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Keith Randolph is a monster.
So is Tarique Barnes.
Make sense of this.
So if I understand right, Iowa just...— Shehan Jeyarajah (@ShehanJeyarajah) October 9, 2022
-Punted from their own 16
-Recovered a muff at the Illinois 35
-Went 3 plays for -6 yards and punted
-Forced a fumble and recovered at the 5
-Went 4 plays for -4 yards
-Kicked a field goal
A 15-play, -10-yard, 76 punt yard field goal drive.
TWEET OF THE GAME
The rivalry is real.
It’s the “Illinois” Student section for a reason.— Noah Cowell (@cowell_noah) October 8, 2022
Multiple Iowa fans attempted to trespass into the section and were kicked out by the Illini faithful.
The rivalry is real tonight. pic.twitter.com/Kx5qvgQGpe
Another huge game is on tap as Illinois welcomes Minnesota for Homecoming weekend.
Kickoff will be Saturday at 11 a.m. CT on Big Ten Network.