In spite of losing multiple stars to injury and controversy swirling around one of its coordinators, Iowa is headed to the Big Ten Championship Game. The Hawkeyes secured their second Big Ten West title in the past three years with a 15-13 win against Illinois Saturday night. They’re set to play either Michigan or Ohio State, as the Buckeyes and Wolverines will face off in the regular season finale with the Big Ten East on the line.
Iowa’s defense was as strong as ever against the Illini. The Hawkeyes opened the scoring by forcing a safety on Illinois’ first offensive drive of the game and forced a turnover on downs on Illinois’ potential game-winning drive with just under four minutes left to play in the fourth quarter.
But Iowa’s embattled offense deserves some credit. Illinois took a 10-9 lead with 6:53 left in the second quarter and expanded on it later with a field goal. That lead held for almost 30 minutes, but evaporated in just six seconds in the fourth quarter when Iowa running back Kaleb Johnson ripped off a 30-yard rushing touchdown.
Iowa had its extra point blocked, which meant Illinois could have won the game with a field goal. The Hawkeyes held and were able to bleed the clock and finally kneel the game out after forcing a turnover on downs. Johnson had a key 12-yard run on third-and-8 to ice the game.
The Hawkeyes have faced as much adversity as any team this season. Starting quarterback Cade McNamara suffered a season-ending knee injury against Michigan State, just five games into the year. Tight end Erick All, who is still Iowa’s leading receiver, tore his ACL in mid-October.
Then, in the week leading up to the Illinois game, it was revealed that star defensive back/punt return specialist Cooper DeJean — a potential first-round prospect in the NFL Draft — suffered a season-ending injury in practice. Those injuries alone would be too much for most teams to overcome, but the Hawkeyes have also seen multiple running backs and wide receivers miss time through the course of the year.
On top of the injury bug, Iowa is playing with one major assistant that won’t be back after this year. The Hawkeyes announced Oct. 30 that offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, coach Kirk Ferentz’s son, will not return to Iowa’s staff in 2024. He will finish the 2023 season in his current role. It was his offense, with a first-year starting quarterback and a beleaguered group of playmakers, that willed Iowa to victory late in the fourth quarter against Illinois.