By DAVID MERCER
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The wind whipped at a consistent 25 mph Saturday, making the 37-degree temperature at Illinois’ Memorial Stadium feel a good 10 degrees colder and making any ball in the air — punt, pass or kick — an adventure.
But Iowa knows how to handle this kind of game.
The Hawkeyes struggled to a 7-0 halftime lead before turning the game over to LeShun Daniels Jr. and the defense on the way to a 28-0 win over the Illini.
The shutout was the first for Iowa (7-4 overall, 5-3 in the Big Ten) since a victory over Ball State in 2010. Illinois had just 198 yards of offense, had as many first downs — 10 — as punts and never pushed inside the Iowa 30-yard line.
Watching the defense work motivated the offense to put points on the board on a day when they were tough to come by, Hawkeyes quarterback C.J. Beathard said.
“They’ve been flying around and hitting guys and getting to the ball the last couple of weeks,” said Beathard, who was 9 of 17 for just 80 yards and an interception. “They’ve stacked a couple of really good games together defensively.”
Daniels had 159 yards on 26 carries, including second-half touchdowns of 1 and 50 yards that put the game away.
Even with quarterback Wes Lunt back from an injured back and starting his first game since early October, Illinois (3-8, 2-6) struggled to deal with the conditions and the Hawkeyes defense.
“We dropped the balls when we got it to the receivers. It just wasn’t a good day for our offense as a whole — we couldn’t get the running game going,” Illinois coach Lovie Smith said.
The wind was the only reason McCarron dropped deep on punt returns Saturday, joining Desmond King as a second return man to deal with the unpredictable flight of the ball, Ferentz said. And having McCarron back there paid off late in the first half.
Standing at his own 45, he waited for the low, wind-driven punt from David Reisner to find him. When it did, he broke right and found little but open space on the way to a 55-yard touchdown and the 7-0 halftime lead.
Iowa: Coming off a big win over Michigan, the Hawkeyes struggled through the first half. McCarron’s touchdown looked for a while like it might be the game’s only points. But Iowa’s defense kept its foot on the Illini for four quarters, denying them points even off a pair of first-half turnovers and keeping Lunt to 137 yards and an interception on 19-of-41 passing.
Illinois: The Illini had first-half chances. But they failed to turn two turnovers and some good field position into points in their last home game of the season. Lost in the final score is a solid effort from a defense that Iowa wore down as the game went on. Iowa had 136 yards at halftime, had turned the ball over twice and, minus McCarron’s punt return, hadn’t scored.
Think the stiff wind wasn’t a factor? Iowa was so concerned about it that Ferentz chose to play with the wind at his team’s back rather than receive the ball to open the third quarter. And the decision paid off. The Hawkeyes forced Illinois into a three-and-out possession to open the half, then comfortably drove 77 yards for Daniels’ first touchdown and a 14-0 lead.
Ferentz remembered making a similar move once, in 2003 against Michigan State.
“It didn’t work out too well up in East Lansing,” he said. “They promptly drove 80 yards.”
WHO NEEDS TO THROW?
Four times in his career at Iowa, Beathard has thrown for fewer than 100 yards. All four times the Hawkeyes have won, at Wisconsin and Nebraska in 2015 and the past two weeks over Michigan and Illinois.
LUNT TO GRANT
Lunt and Illinois receiver Zach Grant were high school teammates in Rochester, Illinois, just outside Springfield, and won a pair of state titles playing at Memorial Stadium. Grant came into the game with just 17 catches this season, but the connection between the two seniors was one of the few things that worked Saturday. Grant had eight catches for 65 yards and said the connection between the two felt a little like high school again.
“Now thinking about it, it did a little bit. It was nice to get rolling for sure,” he said.
Iowa: The Hawkeyes close at home against No. 19 Nebraska next Saturday.
Illinois: Illinois finishes up at Northwestern next Saturday.