IOWA CITY, Iowa — Bowl eligibility will have to wait another week.
In a packed Kinnick Stadium, Iowa needed a win Saturday to clinch the Big Ten West. The visitors came in hoping to play spoiler while keeping themselves alive in the race.
With a lead of 13-9 halfway through the fourth quarter, and with Iowa having punted on its last six possessions, the Illinois defense needed to continue its strong work.
Iowa got the ball back with under seven minutes to go. Four plays later, it would take the lead for the first time since the second quarter.
Running back Kaleb Johnson found a gap in the Illinois defense and took it to the house from 30 yards out.
“That final drive defensively, we had done so many good things,” said head coach Bret Bielema. “But we had two [defensive pass interferences] on that drive and gave them a lot of free yards and they hit a crease run that we had stopped all day.”
Following a missed extra point, Iowa now led 15-13. But Illinois has John Paddock, who of course has led Illinois on game-winning drives against Minnesota and Indiana.
He had the chance to be the hero once again with only a field goal needed to win the game. Could the legend of John Paddock continue?
Not this week, at least.
Illinois would not even pick up a single first down in the last possession. The orange and blue’s last chance came on a 4th-and-2 in Iowa territory and the ball was batted down — a big issue that led to the loss.
“Offensively I know they knocked down a lot of balls at the line of scrimmage,” Bielema said. “That’s going to be a big point of emphasis.”
All Iowa (9-2, 6-2 Big Ten) had to do is run out the clock after, and would find itself as the Big Ten West Champion. Illinois had all sorts of opportunities to win, but instead would end up on the losing end, 15-13.
“For us as coaches, we’ve got to be to triumph in that moment,” Bielema said. “We’ve got to change up what we’re calling so we can’t put our guys in jeopardy.”
The Illini (5-6, 3-5 Big Ten) have not won at Kinnick Stadium since 1999.
HOW IT HAPPENED
Iowa couldn’t have asked for a more Iowa start. With the first drive resulting in a punt, Iowa’s defense — the third best scoring defense in the Big Ten — had Illinois facing a 3rd-and-long deep in its own territory.
A strip sack of Paddock resulted in a safety being the first score of the game. Who would’ve thought.
Through two offensive drives, Illinois had nothing working. Paddock had yet to complete a pass and a total of eight yards were lost. On the flip side, Iowa had the mentioned punt and a missed field goal.
Big Ten West football at its finest.
Illinois would find some promise in its next drive though, as Paddock completed a couple passes and led the offense into Iowa territory. Caleb Griffin then put the Illini on the board with a 52-yard field goal.
Although, the drive got cut short due to a picked up flag that seemingly was going to be called pass interference. You be the judge.
Then, both teams’ offenses found rhythm. Back-to-back touchdowns would be scored, as consecutive 75-yard drives made a 3-2 game — in favor of the Illini — a 10-9 game. Neither side scored a touchdown in last year’s matchup.
Later in the second, Caleb Griffin missed a 52-yard field goal, causing the score to remain 10-9 into the break.
Out of the half, it took a while for another score. Neither side put points on the board in the third. Illinois would make another field goal at the very start of the fourth quarter to extend its lead to four.
With Iowa having punted on its last six possessions, Illinois was feeling comfortable about leaving Saturday victorious.
But those feelings diminished instantly on the Iowa drive that sealed the game.
“It’s going to be a gut check this week,” Bielema said. “These guys have done a lot of really good things. I want them to get a chance to play postseason.”
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Reggie Love scored the only Illini touchdown Saturday.
Iowa gained yards on this play. Yes, you read that right.
IW continues to tear up opposing defenses.
Seth Coleman sacked Deacon Hill twice in Saturday’s loss.
TWEET OF THE GAME
Illini fans took over Iowa City. It was cool to see.
There is orange and blue mixed in all throughout Kinnick here.— The Champaign Room (@Champaign_Room) November 18, 2023
Big shoutout to #Illini nation for making the trip up for this game.
Here’s a prime example.
Illini Pope has made an appearance pic.twitter.com/PEmsLH1vG3— Barstool Illini (@BarstoolILL) November 18, 2023
Senior Day and the last regular season game.
Illinois welcomes in Northwestern to try and clinch bowl eligibility. Kickoff from Memorial Stadium will be at 2:30 p.m. and will be televised on BTN.