By RICK BROWN
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -– Defense, special teams and LeShun Daniels carried the University of Iowa football team to a 28-0 victory over Illinois on Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
Now 7-4 overall and 5-3 in Big Ten play, the Hawkeyes close the regular season Friday in the Heroes Game against Nebraska at Kinnick Stadium.
Iowa clinched its ninth winning Big Ten season under head coach Kirk Ferentz with the victory, and recorded its 10th road victory in the last 11 games. Iowa has a 10-3 Big Ten road record since 2014.
Iowa’s defense, humbled in a 41-14 loss at Penn State on Nov. 5, played inspired for the second straight week. Iowa held the Illini to 198 yards on 65 plays. The week before, the Hawkeye defense held No. 2 Michigan to 201 yards on 61 plays in a 14-13 upset.
Saturday marked Iowa’s first shutout since Ball State in 2010, and first shutout of a Big Ten foe since a 12-0 victory over Minnesota in the final regular-season game of 2009. It was also the first whitewash of Illinois since a 59-0 blowout at Kinnick Stadium in 1985.
Illinois was forced to punt on its first 10 possessions, a streak that was snapped when All-America cornerback Desmond King made his 13th career interception in the third quarter.
“When you shut somebody out it’s a real team effort,” said Ferentz, who tied Michigan’s Lloyd Carr for sixth all-time with his 81st Big Ten victory. “This is two weeks in a row we’ve played good team defense, coming off one of our all-time worst performances. It speaks well to the staff. Those guys have done a great job. And the players, most importantly, have just taken ownership. It wasn’t like we had a magic wand and changed anything. The guys are just playing better and more cohesively. This is two weeks in a row where they’ve put a good showing out there for us.”
Senior wide receiver Riley McCarron provided the Hawkeyes some much-needed momentum with a 55-yard punt return for a touchdown to give the Hawkeyes a 7-0 lead with 4:33 remaining in the opening half.
Iowa had just seen a 79-yard drive end at the Illinois 1-yard line on its previous possession, when running back Akrum Wadley had the ball stripped. But much like Jaleel Johnson’s safety in the second quarter the week before when Iowa was in a 10-0 second-quarter hole against Michigan, McCarron’s return was an emotional boost.
It was just the second punt return of the season for McCarron, who zipped up the middle and cut to his right to reach the end zone untouched.
“What a play that was,” Ferentz said. “It looked like nice execution, and a nice run by Riley. And great blocking up front.”
With fierce winds of 25 miles per hour, gusting to 40 out of the northwest, it became obvious that the run game would be a key to victory. With starting offensive tackles Cole Croston and Ike Boettger out with injuries, Iowa put its seventh different starting offensive line on the field. Redshirt freshman Levi Paulsen made his first career start, at right guard.
The Hawkeyes had just 80 yards rushing on 19 first-half carries, but finished the game with 262 yards on 49 carries.
And Daniels, following the blocking of his younger brother and center, James, on many of his runs, finished with 159 yards on 26 carries. He also scored twice, matching his career high of eight touchdowns in a season. Wadley added 82 yards in 13 carries and had the Hawkeyes’ other touchdown to close out the scoring.
“The offensive line was doing an excellent job, especially in the second half, of moving guys off the ball and getting to the right assignments, and it made it easy for us backs,” Daniels said.
It was the fifth 100-yard game of Daniels’ career. He now has 855 yards rushing in 169 carries. Wadley has 861 yards in 135 carries.
“I think it’s been helpful for us, to keep us fresh throughout the games and the season,” Daniels said of splitting time at running back.
Iowa made it a 14-0 game on a 12-play, 77-yard touchdown drive on its first possession of the third quarter. The drive got off to an ominous start when Daniels fumbled on the first play, but wide receiver Adrian Falconer was credited with the recovery.
Daniels had eight carries for 45 yards on the drive, including a 10-yard run around the left end that was ruled a touchdown but overturned on replay. He scored from a yard out three plays later.
Daniels then put the game out of reach with a 50-yard touchdown run with 7:17 to play. Quarterback C.J. Beathard, now 20-6 as a starter, faked a jet sweep to Wadley that cleared the linebackers and gave it to Daniels, who darted around right end, bounced off a would-be tackler at the 10 and scored.
On the ensuing kickoff, Iowa freshman cornerback Manny Rugamba stripped Nathan Echard of the ball and recovered it at the Illini 26. Rugamba, starting his second game in place of the injured Greg Mabin, was coming off a big game at Michigan when he had four tackles, three pass breakups and an interception. On Saturday, Rugamba was credited seven tackles.
“He seems to be totally unaffected by this whole thing,” Ferentz said. “He jumped in and played good football last week. Same thing today. And he’s been doing a good job on special teams all year long.”
Linebacker Josey Jewell, the Big Ten’s leading tackler entering the game, added 10 more stops. Safety Anthony Gair, starting for the injured Miles Taylor, added eight tackles. Iowa’s defense had two sacks and seven tackles for a loss.