Oct. 30, 2004
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CHAMPAIGN, IL. — After a critical third quarter which garnered 16 points and the first punt block safety in two years, Iowa handed Illinois its 14th straight Big Ten Conference loss, 23-13, Saturday inside Memorial Stadium.
At halftime, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz told Hawkeye Radio Network sideline reporter Rob Brooks that whoever led the first few minutes of the third quarter would set the tone for the rest of the game.
He was right.
The third quarter was decisive for the Hawkeyes, and it started when defensive lineman Jonathan Babineaux stripped Jason Davis of a 4-yard reception at the Illini 37.
“We told the team at the half that third quarter production was just going to be critical,” Ferentz said. “(Babineaux’s forced fumble) opened up just beautifully, and it really helped turned the corner.”
The turnover set up a six-play drive that culminated with a 19-yard pass from Drew Tate to Ed Hinkel to give Iowa (No. 23 AP; No. 24 ESPN/USA Today) a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
The quarter didn’t get much better for Illinois. On its next drive, Miguel Merrick blocked league-leading punter Steve Weatherford’s punt on his own goal line, forcing a safety.
That Illinois turnover setup yet another Hawkeye TD on a 5-yard QB keeper on a third-and-one play. Place kicker Kyle Schlicher was perfect on the day, going 3-for-3.
The Illini were able to come back only briefly in the final few seconds of the fourth quarter with a 3-yard pass from substitute quarterback Jon Beutjer to Kendrick Jones.
But the reason that the third quarter was so important for the Hawkeyes was that the team with the worst record in the Big Ten struck first with an 8-yarder from starting quarterback Brad Bower to Jones at 9:51 in the first.
Iowa wasn’t able to rebound until Tate connected with Hinkel for the first 19-yarder of the game to end the half tied at 7.
“It was a hard-fought ballgame and we expected nothing but the best from Illinois,” Ferentz said. “We knew that coming in.”
The Hawkeyes (6-2 overall, 4-1 Big Ten) go undefeated in the month of October, heading into their final three “grind” games of the season against Purdue, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Illinois falls to 2-7 overall and 0-6 in the conference.
On Saturday, Coach Ferentz praised his players’ “gritty” performance.
“I can’t give enough credit to our players,” he said. “They played gritty and tough, leaving it on the field. Someway, somehow we’re finding ways to win ballgames.”
For the fourth-straight year, Iowa is bowl eligible, and it remains in the hunt for at least a share of the Big Ten Championship.
“I don’t want to diminish that,” Ferentz said, “but our season is not over. And to be 6-2 was the best we could be, and the credit goes to our players. They’ve done a good job preparing. As coaches, we have to keep a close eye out to make sure we don’t lose our guys physically. We have to be real smart with what we do with our guys from now on.”
The Hawkeyes have lost six tail backs in eight games, including Aaron Mickens and Champ Davis on Saturday. Mickens was taken to hospital with back pain and a mild concussion, but Davis may have sustained an anterior cruciate ligament injury, according to the coach.
“The preliminary report doesn’t look very good,” Ferentz said, while positively reporting that Mickens looks set to rejoin the team normally. “I think we’re looking at another ACL.”
Davis would be the fourth back-fielder to go out with an ACL injury this year, joining Marcus Schnoor, Albert Young and Jermelle Lewis.
“It’s getting interesting,” Ferentz said. “It’s becoming a little bigger challenge.”
Redshirt freshman fullback Tom Busch stepped in for Mickens and snagged two catches for 20 yards, providing a bit of a spark for the Hawkeyes at needed points in the game.
“It just seems that we find somebody different to give us a spark in every game,” said Ferentz on Busch’s performance.
“I can’t give enough credit to our players. They played gritty and tough, leaving it on the field. Someway, somehow we’re finding ways to win ballgames.”
Head Coach Kirk Ferentz
But yet again, Tate was the key for another successful outing, drawing the praise of his coach and TV commentators alike. Tate went 24-of-34 for 243 yards and two touchdowns. The sophomore did have one interception.
“He made some big plays for us that helped out,” Ferentz said. “I think the thing I like about him is that he’s rather hard to control, and I’d like it that way over a guy without his head in the game.
“He’s made a couple of plays where he’s scrambled out, and he’s doing a lot of great things,” Ferentz added. “He’s a leadership, energy guy, and I’m really pleased with the way he’s been performing for us.”
Tate had to battle a constant 28 mph wind with gusts as high as 40 mph, despite the sunny 63-degree weather otherwise.
“I can’t remember playing in a wind like this, playing or practicing,” Ferentz said.
According to Hinkel, Tate’s leading receiver, the wind was an issue early on but seemed to subside as their comfort level grew through the game.
“The wind was really strong,” Hinkel said. “It was a battle of field position in the first quarter, and they won early but we got it back.
“Drew and I were really comfortable, and he’s having a great year – putting the ball where it needs to be, and I’m just doing my job and catching the ball.”
The Hawkeyes end their two-game road streak and will return to Kinnick Stadium next week to host Purdue, which lost to Northwestern on Saturday to fall to 2-3 in the league.
“They’re an excellent football team,” Ferentz said of Purdue. “We’ve had a tough go with those guys, and we’re really going to have to regroup and have a good game. (Kinnick) is rocking, and I’m sure it’s going to be a great environment.”
Iowa has won its last 16 games inside the stadium which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year.
Barry Pump, hawkeyesports.com