Iowa Illinois Football

Iowa players celebrate their 28-0 win against Illinois on Saturday at Memorial Stadium. The Hawkeyes are 7-4 heading into Friday's regular-season finale against Nebraska at Kinnick Stadium.

AP

Five things to think about following the Iowa football team's 28-0 shutout at Illinois on Saturday:

1. The good

Beyond the effective rushing of LeShun Daniels and Akrum Wadley, the Hawkeyes accomplished one thing of true significance Saturday in Champaign.

They beat more than an Illinois football team which remains a work in progress in Lovie Smith's first season. Iowa demonstrated that November continues to be a time of growth for players in the Hawkeye program.

There was no letdown following a shiny 14-13 win over second-ranked Michigan, a superb performance on a national stage.

Sandwiched between the bright lights of that game and a Black Friday match-up with Nebraska, Saturday's game at Illinois had all the makings of a trap game for the Hawkeyes.

Early-start time, nonexistent crowd, struggling opponent and the first numbing weather of the season, all of the pieces in were in place for this to be a long day.

Iowa started slowly on offense - quarterback C.J. Beathard simply and accurately labeled the first half "ugly'' - but there are two sides to any field and fortunately for the Hawkeyes the defense was ready from the start.

As the offense worked to find the rhythm it found in the second half, Iowa defenders were ignored biting windchills in the mid 20s and put the bite on the Fighting Illini.

The Hawkeyes found first-half success on special teams as well, putting the only points it needed on this day on the board when Riley McCarron returned a punt 55 yards for a score.

The combined work was enough to earn some praise from coach Kirk Ferentz.

"Certainly I thought they played with a lot of determination, discipline and decisiveness,'' Ferentz said.

That 3D picture of what transpired proved to be delightful for Iowa, which stepped off its season-long roller coaster at least for one week to build on what it accomplished against the Wolverines.

"One thing we've always tried to work with with our guys is to take a consistent approach. It really gets down to details, the way they approach their preparation and most importantly, the energy they bring and the way they compete on the field,'' Ferentz said.

There was no letdown for the Hawkeyes, simply more of the same from Michigan to Illinois and to accomplish that was as important as anything Iowa accomplished in finishing its Big Ten road schedule with a 4-1 record.

2. The as good as it gets

In today's college game, rules are bent to favor the offenses and a shutout is something to savor.

Iowa hadn't had one since 2010 until Saturday and it hadn't recorded one in a Big Ten game since blanking Minnesota 12-0 in 2009.

Think about that.

The Hawkeyes had played 84 games since last throwing a goose egg up on the scoreboard, an effort that takes consistency, cohesion and execution to happen.

Here's how Iowa manufactured its shutout on Saturday in Champaign, a look at how Illinois drives ended:

1. Punt

2. Punt

3. Punt

4. Punt

5. Punt

6. Punt

7. Punt

8. Punt

9. Punt

10. Punt

11. Interception

12. Turnover on downs

13. Fumble

14. Turnover on downs

3. The special

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Riley McCarron's 55-yard punt return for a touchdown was a testament to teamwork.

The senior who toted the leather into the end zone credited "all the guys'' for making it work and was pretty much spot on.

Starting with the initial realization that Memorial Stadium was going to be a wind tunnel on Saturday that led to the decision to put both McCarron and Desmond King back to return punts, the Hawkeyes made the right calls and executed them to put the first points of the game on the board.

On his way to the end zone, McCarron benefited from an initial block by King, Michael Ojemudia's play to eliminate Illinois' gunner on the play, blocks by Kevin Ward and Jack Hockaday and one last hit by Amani Jones.

"For something like that to happen, it all has to work and it did,'' McCarron said. "My job is pretty easy. They're the ones who made it that way. I didn't get touched.''

4. The are they going to draw names out of a hat next?

Injuries continue to test Iowa's depth on the offensive line.

Redshirt freshmen Levi Paulsen became the latest addition to an offensive front which has seen seven different lineup combinations through 11 games this season.

With Paulsen replacing Ike Boettger and Keegan Render starting again in place of Cole Croston, Iowa entered the Illinois game with five combined starts at the two guard positions.

Sean Welsh, Boone Myers and James Daniels were the vets on the front five on Saturday and it took some time for things to get going. They protected C.J. Beathard, who was not sacked in the game, and they provided blocking which led Iowa to 262 rushing yards, the second-best effort of the season.

5. The bad

Iowa's string of slow starts continued Saturday.

The Hawkeyes haven't scored a point in the first quarter of their last four games, which mirrors some of the overall struggles Iowa has had mostly against a rigorous schedule.

Defenses from Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan had something to say about that before Illinois blanked the Hawkeyes on Saturday.

The starts generally set a tone for the day and until LeShun Daniels scored on a one-yard run on Iowa's first drive on Saturday, the Hawkeye offense had scored just three touchdowns in its previous 15 quarters of work.

Iowa wore Illinois down Saturday and found its way into the end zone three times in the second half in wind-swept Champaign, perhaps a hint that things are beginning to turn around.

5A. The there's no ugly this week but at least I can make plans now

In case you missed it late Saturday night, the kickoff time for Friday's Iowa-Nebraska game at Kinnick Stadium has finally been set.

The Hawkeyes and the team once known as the Bugeaters will meet at 2:30 p.m. ABC will televise the Heroes Game to the nation.

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