IOWA CITY, Iowa (WCIA) — Illinois (5-6, 3-5) led from halfway through the second quarter all the way until the final minutes of the game before Iowa’s Kaleb Johnson cut through the Illini defense for a 30-yard touchdown to give the Hawkeyes (9-2, 6-2) the lead and eventually the 15-13 win.
Down two and facing a fourth and two from their own 33-yard line, Illinois elected to go for it after calling a timeout with less than four minutes left to play in the game. But the pass was batted down, giving the ball back to the Hawkeyes with a short field. They ran out the clock and won the game, celebrating an outright Big Ten West title, punching their ticket to Indianapolis.
“I told the offense we were going to ride together, we gonna die together,” running back Reggie Love III said. “You know going for it on fourth down was something we felt comfortable with.”
“I had a ton of confidence, it was the look we wanted,” starting quarterback John Paddock said. “They were playing press, we just had a little scrape on the slant coming underneath. I saw it and was about to put it right in his chest and the guy just jumped up and made a great play.”
Illinois had control for most of the second half. A long drive could have essentially ended the game with the Illini up 13-9 with seven minutes left but they were forced to punt, giving Iowa life and the Hawkeyes took advantage.
After six straight drives that ended in a punt, the dormant Iowa offense suddenly came to life, with Johnson’s 30-yard touchdown run the difference in the game.
“You can play 80 plays right and miss one and that’s what happened,” safety Clayton Bush said. “This is a team that waits for you to mess up.”
“We had it,” linebacker Dylan Rosiek said. “We were playing their game better than they were but they ended up playing for longer.”
In his second straight start Paddock certainly gave the Illini a chance to win throwing for 215 yards. 105 of those were to Isaiah Williams, his third straight game above the century mark, but playing against the third ranked scoring defense in the country presented a big challenge.
“We knew the task we had coming into the week,” Paddock said. “One of our keys to victory was to stay patient and then pop them but when we got it across the 50 sometimes we had some lulls, just got to be able to sustain.”
“I don’t want to get lost in negativity. A lot of guys played their ass off today, a lot of guys competed but it’s going to be a gut check this week,” Illinois head coach Bret Bielema said. “These guys have done a lot of really good things, I want them to get a chance to play postseason.”
Paddock will start next week according to Bret Bielema, whose team needs a win against Northwestern to gain bowl eligibility. If not, they’ll be spending the holidays at home. Kickoff against the Wildcats is 2:30 p.m. on Saturday.