Heat Checks and Hail Marys - Illini Win Huge One Over Iowa

Mike Cagley, IlliniGuy Sports Spectacular Host

October 9, 2022

For most of the years since Fry was hired, Iowa has found a way to win key games like last night's and the Illini have found a way to lose them. Under Bret Bielema, the Illini are finding ways to win big games. There is no way to overestimate how huge this pivot is for the Illini football program.

The Iowa game was not a work of art, but it was a win that was needed by both teams. This time, despite injuries to four starters, the Illini managed to find a way to steal victory from the jaws of defeat. A win by the narrowest of margins is still a win. Finding ways to win is how programs evolve into winning programs.

Appreciate this game for the evolutionary aspect, not the artistic aspect.

Heat Check #1 - Stats are Important Until They're Not

The Illini lost the turnover battle 3 turnovers to 1. Most assumed turnovers would be the differentiator in this battle of dueling lethal defenses. On top of that, the Illini lost the battle of points off of turnovers 3 to 0. If one would've told me that the Illini would lose both of these stats, yet win the game, I wouldn't have believed this outcome to be possible. Certainly, it would be at best highly unlikely.

The other area that Iowa was viewed as having an advantage was in special teams, particularly in the quality of kickers and punters. But that didn't materialize the way most viewed it would play out either.

Fabrizio Pinton courtesy David Craan, Illinois Athletics

In kicking, Illini backup kicker Fabrizio Pinson was 3 for 3 on his field goal attempts hitting from 27, 37 and 36 yards. His 36-yarder was the difference in the game. Conversely, Iowa kicker Drew Stevens hit field goals from 32 and 27 yards but missed a 45-yard field goal.

One doesn't usually expect the backup forced into service to be the kicker would emerge as the one kicker who doesn't miss when the game is on the line. Tonight, that backup kicker scenario played out much differently than the standard script.

When analyzing the punting game, Iowa's Tory Taylor averaged 40.9 yards per punt and landed 3 of his 8 punts inside the 20-yard line. There is nothing wrong with that performance, but it was exceeded by the Illini's Hugh Robertson. Hugh averaged 41.5 yards per punt and landed 4 of his 6 punts inside the 20-yard line. His improvement since the early season has been dramatic.

The only kicking stat that was clearly in Iowa's favor was the lack of return yards by the Illini on kickoffs as Iowa didn't give them any opportunities to do so. The Hawkeyes did end up with 49 yards of kickoff returns as the Illini were unable to generate touchbacks with backup kickoff specialists.

Heat Check #2 - Chase Brown is a Heisman Candidate

Chase Brown courtesy Illinois Football Twitter page.

Heisman candidates have to be exceptional in their play. They also have to play on a team that wins. Up to this point in the season, Chase Brown qualifies in both categories. Against Iowa, he carried the ball 31 times for 146 yards. He also caught 4 passes for 17 yards. Besides the ability to accumulate all-purpose yards, Brown also allows the Illini to control the clock. The Illini didn't dominate the clock but still had the ball for 2 minutes more than the Hawkeyes. When looking at tonight's game and the razor's edge by which the Illini won, that 2 minutes may have been the difference between a win or a loss.

Chase Brown has 879 total yards rushing while averaging 146.50 yards per game. Those are numbers that after 6 games are Heisman worthy.

The Illini are 5-1 with only a touchdown call non-reversal preventing them from being undefeated at 6-0. Heisman trophy candidates need to be on a winning team. Chase Brown qualifies here as well.

If the Illini keep winning and if Chase Brown keeps running to daylight behind his high performing offensive line, the Illini should have a Heisman candidate finalist on their hands.

Heat Check #3 - An Historically Tough Illini Defense

Newton (4) and Randolph (88) courtesy Illinois Football Twitter page

The Illinois defense has not yet allowed a touchdown at a home game this season. The defense is becoming an "instant classic" Illini defense for the ages. Their results at home are nothing short of impressive:

  • Wyoming was held to 6 points. The Cowboys are now 4-3 while averaging 23 points per game.
  • Virginia was held to 3 points. The Cavaliers are now 2-4 while averaging 18 points per game.
  • Chattanooga was shut out. The Mocs are now 4-1 while averaging 23 points per game.
  • Iowa was held to 6 points. The Hawkeyes are now 3-3 while averaging 16 points a game.

The rules of college football are set up to create high scoring games. The Illini have prevented their opponents from effectively rushing the ball and then used intense pass rush pressure to force turnovers and incompletions. Despite a game designed to be high scoring, the Illini don't allow that on their watch.

The defense will get its strongest challenge next week against the Minnesota Golden Gophers. While the Illini had the Gophers number last year, the Gophers will be coming off of a bye week and Coach PJ Fleck will have his team fired up to avenge last year's defeat at the hands of the Illini.

Illini fans looking to create memories and wanting to say they've seen the modern era's greatest Illini defense will want to purchase tickets to attend next weekend's Minnesota game at Memorial Stadium. Homecoming is always a treat, and this team plays a style of ball that is exciting and hard hitting. Don't miss your chance to see them in action.

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