CHAMPAIGN, ILL., NOV. 3 -- Iowa Coach Hayden Fry looked as if he had just found $1 million in his pants pocket. Fry wanted to run and tell his best friend about how his Hawkeyes had just kicked Illinois up and down its home field, but disbelief kept him immobilized. Words can't describe what happened, he said.
Do the words Rose Bowl have a nice ring, coach?
This was embarrassing, folks, 54-28 embarrassing. No. 13 Iowa, behind the Big Ten's most powerful offense, all but knocking No. 5 Illinois out of the Rose Bowl race while securing its path to one of college football's most prestigious championships. What made this loss so ugly for the Illini (6-2, 4-1) is that it came before a sellout crowd of 72,714 at Memorial Stadium, the largest of the year.
It was the worst loss for the Illini since 1986, when they lost to Michigan 69-13.
Should Iowa (7-1, 5-0) win two of its last three games it would capture the Big Ten title and face Pacific-10 champion Washington in the Rose Bowl. Iowa won its last Rose Bowl game, in 1964, and whether the Hawkeyes get another chance is now up to them. Their remaining games are against Ohio State and Purdue and at Minnesota (4-1 in the conference). The Illini are at Michigan and Indiana and home against Northwestern.
The running game, along with the steady presence of quarterback Matt Rodgers (11 of 16 for 188 yards and two touchdowns), basically won the game for the Hawkeyes. Rodgers was a commanding presence, leading them to scores on their first five possessions. They rushed for 335 yards and held Illinois to a season-low 16.
Last year as a sophomore Rodgers, son of former Boston Celtics coach Jimmy Rodgers, threw for more interceptions (13) than touchdowns (12). He almost quit but his father convinced him to continue.
"Today I was on," Rodgers said. "I'm a completely different quarterback from last year and this is a completely different team."
"Never in my wildest dreams did I think our offense would score that many points against such a good defense," said Fry of the Illini, previously the top-ranked defense in the Big Ten. "This was a big win. We tried to keep it low-key publicly, but this was a big win."
"It's time for us to get some respect," running back Tony Stewart said. "No one wants to give us respect. But it's coming."
They will certainly get it from Illinois. Some of the Illini fans and players were saying this week how they were upset that an Iowa assistant basketball coach went to the NCAA with evidence regarding rule violations in the Illini basketball program. The NCAA is still deciding the fate of Illini basketball, but in the meantime, this was supposed to be payback time. But . . .
"We didn't have the same zip," said Illinois Coach John Mackovic. "We didn't attack the ball the way we like to attack it. We didn't convert the offense when we needed to convert. We did not play the type of game we hoped to play."
Illinois had little success stopping anything Iowa tried on offense. Hawkeyes running back Nick Bell, behind an assortment of traps and zone blocking on all-American nose tackle Moe Gardner, perhaps the best defensive lineman in college, rushed for 168 yards and two touchdowns on 22 attempts. If that wasn't enough, Stewart had 101 yards rushing to move into second place on the Iowa career rushing list with 2,356 yards.
Bell and Stewart are sort of a hammer-and-sickle combination: Bell is the 6-foot-3, 255-pound hammer, Stewart the 205-pound swift back, more of a cutback type.
Said Bell: "I don't think I've ever run that hard."
But there is yet even more evidence of just how bad things got for the Illini. While preparing for this game the Iowa coaching staff noticed on films that Illinois might be vulnerable to two trick plays.
They tried the first with 4:20 left in the first quarter. The ball was pitched to Stewart, who lowered his shoulder while running right and acted as if he was going to run for the touchdown. Meanwhile, wide receiver Danan Hughes tiptoed behind cornerback Henry Jones, who bit on the pitch. Stewart lobbed the ball to Hughes in the right corner for the three-yard touchdown. He was all alone, and Iowa had quickly silenced the crowd en route to a 14-0 lead.
The second trick play happened with 3:37 left in the half. The Hawkeyes lined up for a 37-yard field goal attempt, but after receiving the snap, holder and backup quarterback Jim Hartlieb threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to Matt Whitaker.