Sunday, November 2, 2008

On Location: Illinois’ Glow After Beating Rival Iowa


CHAMPAIGN, Illinois.
Ron Zook coached with a fire in his belly, and 60,000+ fans in Memorial Stadium personified that fire on a perfect fall afternoon for a classic Big Ten showdown. The stadium brimmed with orange jerseys and was accented by rival Iowa’s legion in black, which resembled a bed of hot coals just waiting for something to ignite its kinetic potential. Illinois’ anticipation of this game stemmed from a handful of bitter tasting defeats handed to them five years running by the Hawkeyes.

“I hate Iowa…I don’t know, it’s just something about Iowa. Last year, how they rushed the field, I just have some big thing against Iowa…I just don’t like Iowa.” commented wide receiver Arrelious Benn after the game, a sentiment apparently shared by his teammates, “…Iowa’s going to be off our schedule for three years and the seniors never beat Iowa, but now they have. Iowa thinks they’re a team that’s better than us…it has a lot to do with last year, through the week they talked a lot of trash.”

Up until the second half, the game moved quietly, as Iowa’s defensive front seven was able to limit Illinois’ spread attack. Surprisingly, the Illini defense was in control of the game, holding the Hawkeyes to three made field goals (and one miss) in four red zone attempts while folding in an interception. Illinois led 10-9 midway through the third quarter in mostly a defensive struggle. Iowa used running back Shonn Greene (21, 103 yards, one touchdown) to push their offensive agenda and utilized the play-action pass to move the ball in the first half. However, great second half adjustments by the Illinois secondary essentially stymied their opposition – by playing mostly man-under two, Iowa quarterback Ricky Stenzi (11-29, 191 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions) could rarely find open receivers, in which led to sacks, forced scrambles, short dump-offs to the tight ends or incomplete passes.

With Illinois starting to click on offense, quarterback Juice Williams (22/37, 272 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions) took advantage of some broken coverage in the Iowa secondary to find a wide-open Fred Sykes for a 50-yard touchdown. On the ensuing Iowa possession, with the Hawkeyes down 17-9 early in the fourth quarter at their own 15, defensive back Dere Hicks sacked Stanzi, forced a fumble and dashed in to the end zone from seven yards out for a seemingly back-breaking score. It looked as if the fourth quarter would belong to the home team in a pull away win.

But Iowa responded immediately with an efficient 64-yard drive, taking only four plays and consuming only 2:14 of game clock. Wide receiver Andy Brodell caught a pass and scooted around the defense into the end zone on a 29-yard reception. The teams then traded punts as the clock wore down to the four-minute mark, when Iowa’s chance at a complete comeback fell upon them. On second and six from their own 33, Josh Ford took a handoff from Williams and fumbled. Fortunately for Ford, it was recovered by the Hawkeyes and three rushes later, Iowa hit pay dirt on a five-yard sweep off the strong side by Greene. Down 24-22, the Hawkeyes had to go for two and Stanzi found tight end Allen Reisner open in the end zone for the conversion to tie the game at 24.

With 2:46 left in the contest and starting at their own 20, Illinois took the field for the final time against the conference-leading scoring defense. On ten consecutive passes, followed by a five-yard run by Mikel LeShoure, Williams guided the Illini down to the Iowa 29, setting up kicker Matt Eller with a 46-yard field goal attempt with :28 on the clock. Cool and collected, Eller split the uprights, sending Memorial Stadium and the Illini bench in to a celebratory frenzy. When Zook was asked what he said to Eller before the kick, the coach remarked, “Matt, how long you been waiting for this moment…he kinda laughed…if Matt keeps his head down, I don’t have much of a concern.”

The game was finally sealed when Stanzi was intercepted by Vontae Davis.

Afterwards, Coach Zook commented about the tone of the game, which seemed to coincide with Benn’s belief they were battling through a bitter rivalry, “Both teams played until the end…that’s a Big Ten game right there, a 60-minute game, lining up and trying to knock the crap out of each other. This was the hardest hitting game to date.”

As a result of the hard-fought win, Illinois (5-4) took a step closer to bowl eligibility and climbed up one more rung in the Big Ten standings. Coach Zook refused to call this a “must-win” game, but now sees the remainder of the season set up, “We’re coming into our own…this is going to be a heck of a stretch for us…whatever we need to do for 21 days.” After this win, there’s no need to wonder where the team is emotionally - you can tell by the glow emanating from Arrelious Benn’s face (sporting athletic contact lenses in a spooky shade of orange) or by the newly-stoked fire in their eyes.

Photo Credit: Illinois Sports Information