CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Phil Parker almost cracked a smile as he walked toward the Iowa team bus Saturday afternoon at Illinois’ Memorial Stadium.
There will always be things to work on, but the Hawkeye defensive coordinator watched his players warm a raw November day by crafting a 28-0 shutout of the Fighting Illini.
“This is how it is all supposed to work, everybody doing their job, everybody fulfilling their assignments,’’ linebacker Josey Jewell said. “It feels good to get one like this.’’
The shutout was the first recorded by Iowa since a 45-0 win over Ball State in the fourth game of the 2010 season and the first against a Big Ten opponent since the Hawkeyes beating Minnesota 12-0 in the final regular-season game in 2009.
Iowa forced Illinois to punt on its first 10 possessions — a string that ended with a Desmond King interception in the third quarter. It was that type of initial effort that was needed by Iowa.
Temperatures in the upper 30s and a biting crosswind gusting well above its 25 miles-per-hour rate created less-than-ideal conditions for both offenses.
“It was tough out there, real tough,’’ Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard said. “It took us some time to get anything going, but the defense, those guys kept us in it.’’
The only points of the first half were scored on a punt return, with Riley McCarron sending the Hawkeyes into the locker room at the break with a 7-0 lead following a 55-yard return for a touchdown.
“They didn’t get a hand on me,’’ McCarron said. “We thought with the conditions that this might be a week when there was a chance to run one back. Desmond gave me a great block and I was gone.’’
The block made it work, and it was something the two Hawkeye seniors had discussed.
“With the weather being a little rough, we felt like if either one of us caught the punt and it didn’t matter who, and the other guy came up with the block, there was going to be room to make something happen," McCarron said.
As both offenses sputtered that was about all that did happen in the opening two quarters.
With two lineup regulars on the offensive line out with injuries, the Hawkeyes’ rushing attack eventually got on track in the second half and that positioned Iowa to break the game open late with a pair of fourth-quarter scores.
All but 80 of the Hawkeyes' 262 rushing yards came in the final two quarters, including a pair of touchdown runs by LeShun Daniels.
His first, from one yard out, completed a 12-play, 77-yard drive on the Hawkeyes’ first possession of the third quarter and handed Iowa a 14-0 lead. That held until the Hawkeyes scored twice in a three-minute span midway through the fourth quarter.
Daniels, who led Iowa with 159 yards on 26 carries, broke free for a 50-yard score with 7 minutes, 17 seconds remaining in the game. After Manny Rugamba forced and recovered an Illinois fumble on the Illini 26-yard line on the ensuing kickoff, Akrum Wadley scored on a 2-yard run.
“We experienced a few bumps in the road early on and things didn’t go as we had hoped, but the defense kept playing," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "They kept at it. A shutout is a pretty special thing.’’
This was the same Iowa defense that watched Penn State run for 359 of its 599 yards two weeks earlier, but the Hawkeyes overwhelmed Illinois as an encore to their work in shutting down Michigan a week ago.
Wes Lunt returned to the Fighting Illini lineup at quarterback, the senior’s first start in six games because of back problems, but Illinois (3-8, 2-6 Big Ten) never found a rhythm on offense.
Lunt did complete 19 of 41 passes for 137 yards, connecting with St. Ambrose transfer Zach Grant a season-high eight times for 65 yards, but the Fighting Illini mustered only 10 first downs and 198 yards of offense.
The Hawkeyes (7-4, 5-3) limited Illinois to 61 rushing yards and allowed the Fighting Illini inside the Iowa 40-yard line on just one possession.
“Everybody was on top of their game,’’ said Jewell, who finished with a team-high 10 tackles. “Guys were having fun, making plays, one guy after another. When you have it going like that, it’s an awesome feeling.’’
It was a statement the Hawkeyes were looking to make on their way to their fourth Big Ten road victory of the season.
“We’ve been up and down a lot this year, too much, and we wanted to come back after the Michigan game with one like this,’’ linebacker Bo Bower said. “We wanted to prove that we are a good defense. Good defenses show up every week. We did that today.’’