By JAMES ALLAN
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — There was a lot to celebrate Saturday for the University of Iowa football team at Memorial Stadium.
The Hawkeyes rolled to their seventh victory of the season, piling up a season-high 35 first-half points in a 63-0 rout of Illinois. The Hawkeyes’ defense posted their second shutout of the season and Iowa found the end zone via offense, defense, and special teams.
The 63-point margin of victory is the largest of the Kirk Ferentz era and tied for the 12th-largest in Iowa history. It is tied for the worst in Illinois history (1906 vs. University of Chicago).
The Hawkeyes led 7-0 in the first quarter before erupting for 28 points in the second quarter. Iowa scored its third defensive touchdown of the season when sophomore A.J. Epenesa forced a fumble and scooped it up for a 19-yard touchdown.
Iowa’s special teams also set up a pair of touchdowns — the first came when Epenesa blocked a second-quarter punt and senior Kyle Groeneweg joined the party with a 61-yard punt return for a touchdown in the third quarter that made the score 42-0.
The Hawkeye defense dominated an Illinois team that came into the contest averaging 41 points, 549.3 yards, and 348.3 rushing yards over its last three games. Iowa limited the Illini to 18 yards in the first quarter and 120 yards in the first half. For the game, Illinois finished with 231 yards, was 2-for-17 on third down, and the Hawkeyes forced four turnovers.
Senior Jake Gervase and sophomore A.J. Epenesa tied for the team-high with eight tackles. Epenesa was a one-man wrecking crew, finishing with 1.5 sacks, 3.5 tackles for loss, a forced fumble and fumble recovery for a touchdown, and a blocked punt.
Iowa also got interceptions from juniors Amani Hooker, Michael Ojemudia, and Kristian Welch.
After throwing an interception on his first attempt of the game, junior Nate Stanley rebounded to complete 13-of-21 attempts for 178 yards and three touchdowns. Tight ends Noah Fant (3 catches, 54 yards) and T.J. Hockenson (2-48) combined for five catches for 102 yards and three touchdowns.
Iowa’s rushing attack averaged 5.5 yards per carry, finishing with 203 yards on 37 attempts. Sophomore Mekhi Sargent became the first Hawkeye in 2018 to eclipse the 100-yard mark, finishing with 121 yards on 17 attempts with two touchdowns, while sophomore Toren Young had 67 yards on 14 carries and two touchdowns.
Iowa had 250 yards in the first half and finished with 400 for the game. The Hawkeyes had balance, finishing with 197 through the air and 203 on the ground as they averaged 6.7 yards per play.
QUOTING HEAD COACH KIRK FERENTZ
“I am proud of our team. The resiliency they showed and demonstrated, not only today, but all week long. We had a good week of preparation. Today was a total team victory every way you look at it. The goal was to play with purpose, play with resolve, and hopefully some toughness and our guys did that. We were sharp on offense, we played disruptive on defense and were opportunistic on special teams. It was a total team victory.
“Maybe symbolic of that was our first possession; we couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start, turning the ball over right away. The defense came in and got a four-and-out and we gained field position on that. That was a big stop that set the tone for the day and good things came off of that.
“I am happy for our players and am proud of them and the effort they gave us today.”
HOW IT HAPPENED
- Following a first-quarter field position battle, Iowa grabbed a 7-0 lead on its third possession of the game. After a 14-yard Groeneweg punt return gave the Hawkeyes starting field position at the Illini 40, Iowa needed four plays to grab the lead. Stanley hit sophomore Brandon Smith for 10 yards on first down before Young spouted off a 17-yard gain to the 12. Two plays later Stanley hit Fant on a crossing route for a 9-yard touchdown.
- Iowa added to its lead with a seven-play, 58-yard touchdown drive. After opening the series with a 14-yard completion to Groeneweg. Sargent followed with runs of 6, 6, and 4 yards to the 28. After hitting Smith for a 15-yard gain to the 13, Sargent followed with two rushes, scoring from 3-yards out to make the score 14-0.
- The Hawkeyes stretched their lead to 28-0 thanks to their defense. In the span of 1:59, Epenesa forced a fumble on Illinois’ RaVon Bonner, scooped it up and scored on a 19-yard fumble return for a touchdown. On the next series, Epenesa sacked A.J. Bush on first down before blocking a punt three plays later. On the first play of Iowa’s offensive series, Stanley hit Hockenson for an 11-yard touchdown with 11:43 left in the first half.
- Iowa found the end zone for the fifth time with a four-play, 87-yard drive. Stanley opened the series with a 37-yard completion to Fant and he closed the drive with a 37-yard touchdown pass to Hockenson off play action, hitting the tight end on the Iowa sideline, to give the Hawkeyes a 35-0 lead with 5:10 left in the second quarter.
- After the Hawkeyes’ defense forced their fourth three-and-out to start the third quarter, Iowa’s special teams had another big play. Groeneweg returned a Blake Hayes 39-yard punt 61 yards for a touchdown to make the score 42-0. It was Iowa’s first punt return for a touchdown since 2016.
- Hooker’s interception — his fourth of the season — and 39-yard return to the Illinois 20 set up Iowa’s seventh touchdown. Young had five touches (four rushes and a reception) on the series, including a 5-yard touchdown on third-and goal. Iowa led 49-0 with 8:11 left in the third quarter.
- Iowa pushed its lead to 56-0 with redshirt freshman Peyton Mansell under center. Mansell hit Dominique Daffney for 19 yards before Sargent scored on a 29-yard touchdown run — Iowa’s longest touchdown run of the season.
- The Hawkeyes’ ninth and final touchdown came with a 7-play, 51-yard drive. Sargent became the first Iowa running back to eclipse the 100-yard mark with an 18-yard run to the 31. Five players later Young found the end zone from 14-yards out, making the score 62-0 with 5:47 left.
The 63-point margin of victory is Iowa’s largest in the Ferentz era and ties for the 12th-biggest in program history. The 63-point win is its largest shutout win since a 66-0 win over Northern Iowa in 1997 and its largest Big Ten victory since a 64-0 triumph over Northwestern in 1981.
Iowa’s 63 points are the most scored in a single game since a 62-16 victory over North Texas on Sept. 26, 2015.
The 63-point win over Illinois is the largest margin of victory in the 74-game series history, besting a 59-0 win over the Fighting Illini in 1985.
Kirk Ferentz became the fifth coach in conference history to win 150 games as a member of the Big Ten Conference. The top five includes Woody Hayes (202), Amos Alonza Stagg (199), Bo Schembechler (194), Joe Paterno (162), and Ferentz (150).
- Nate Stanley threw three touchdowns today. He has 47 career touchdown passes, fourth all-time in school history. (Chuck Long 74; Drew Tate 61; Ricky Stanzi 56). Stanley threw for 178 yards today, moving past Jake Rudock and into ninth place in career passing yards (4,985).
- Senior Miguel Recinos scored eight points (all PAT’s), raising his career total to 164, 17th all-time. He passed Daniel Murray (158) and Ladell Betts (162) on the all-time list.
- Noah Fant had one receiving touchdown, raising his career total to 19. He ranks fourth all-time in career touchdown receptions (Marvin McNutt 28; Danan Hughes 21; Tim Dwight 21). Fant had a team-best 54 receiving yards, raising his career total to 1,071 yards receiving.
- T.J. Hockensen had two receptions, both going for touchdowns (11 yards and 37 yards). It is his second career multi touchdown game (at Indiana). He has career 983 receiving yards. He will be the 40th player in program history with 1,000+ receiving yards.
- Kyle Groeneweg returned a punt 61 yards in the third quarter. It ties for the 22nd longest in school history (Tim Dwight vs. Michigan in 1997). It is Iowa’s first punt return for a touchdown since Riley McCarron (at Illinois in 2016).
- Michael Ojemudia had his second interception of the season, Amani Hooker intercepted his fourth pass of the season. Iowa has 15 interceptions over its last seven games.
- Iowa had two running backs score two touchdowns today: Mekhi Sargent and Toren Young. Sargent recorded his third multi-touchdown game of the season. He has a team-high eight rushing touchdowns this season. He rushed for a career-high 121 yards on 17 attempts and became Iowa’s first 100 yard rusher since Akrum Wadley at Nebraska in 2017.
- Iowa set a school record in 2018, averaging 42.8 points in five road games. Iowa scored 214 points in five road games this season, a school record for most points scored on the road in a single season.
- The Hawkeyes have held five opponents to a season-low in points (Iowa State, Northern Iowa, Indiana, Maryland, Illinois).
- Iowa has two shutouts in 2018 (Maryland, Illinois), the most since 1997 (three shutouts, two against Big Ten teams).
- Iowa led 35-0 at halftime. It is the most points scored in half this season, and the most points scored in a single half of a Big Ten game since outscoring Nebraska 42-0 in the second half on Nov. 24, 2017. It’s the most points scored in a first half since scoring 35 at Purdue on Oct. 15, 2016. The 28 points scored in the second quarter are the most since scoring 28 in the third quarter against Nebraska in 2017.
- The Hawkeyes have won 13 of the last 16 meetings, 10 of the last 11, and five in a row against Illinois.
ON THE HORIZON
Iowa returns to action Friday, hosting Nebraska in the regular season finale in the Hy-Vee Heroes Game inside Kinnick Stadium. Game time is set for 11 a.m. (CT).