IOWA CITY, Iowa — Once again, Iowa was letting a supposedly overmatched opponent hang around.
A couple of big plays — one by a safety making his season debut — helped the Hawkeyes find their rhythm.
Nate Stanley threw for 247 yards and three touchdowns and Iowa rolled past Illinois 45-16 on Saturday, snapping a two-game losing streak.
Safety Brandon Snyder added an 89-yard interception return for a score in his first game back from a knee injury for the Hawkeyes (4-2, 1-2 Big Ten), who outscored Illinois (2-3, 0-2) 35-3 in the final 30:08 after a start reminiscent of the sluggish one they had before blowing past North Texas last month.
“I was just trying to take in the moment,” said Snyder, who tore his ACL just six months ago. “I’m just thankful to be healthy.”
A successful fake punt helped Iowa take a 17-13 lead into halftime, and Snyder’s pick-six came with 6:40 left in the third quarter and put Iowa ahead 24-13.
“It really kind of ignited us a bit,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “He just continues to earn everybody’s respect within our program.”
Stanley found Matt VandeBerg for a 39-yard TD reception to push the lead to 15 early in the fourth quarter, and Akrum Wadley put the game away on an 18-yard touchdown run with 8:49 left.
Wadley finished with 115 yards, surpassing the 100-yard mark for the third time this season, and he added a 2-yard TD reception.
Jeff George Jr. threw for 246 yards in his first start of the season — but he also threw three interceptions without finding the end zone.
“That’s never a good thing,”” said Illinois coach Lovie Smith about George’s turnovers. “He made a lot of good plays as much as anything.”
Illinois: The move from Chayce Crouch to George gave the Fighting Illini some life in the first half. But big mistakes led to big plays for the Hawkeyes, who scored 21 points in the fourth quarter to turn a tight affair into a blowout. Iowa also scored 17 points off of four Illini turnovers.
Iowa: Illinois entered play with the Big Ten’s worst rushing attack, but the Fighting Illini carved up Iowa’s front for 200 yards on the ground. Iowa’s defense once again stiffened after some halftime adjustments though, and its offense finally found life in the second half. The Hawkeyes also looked like they could really use the upcoming bye week. “We can kind of take a step back and reflect on the first half of the season,” said wide receiver Nick Easley.
Iowa also executed a perfect onside kick, and Amani Hooker converted a fake punt that led to Wadley’s touchdown run. Those plays helped Iowa overcome a 446-441 deficit in yards gained.
Mike Epstein had 83 yards rushing on just seven carries, including one for 58 yards, for Illinois. …Easley caught a game-high seven passes for 59 yards and a TD for Iowa. …Stanley finished the first half of his first season as the starter with 15 touchdown passes. …Illinois was held to 49 yards rushing in the second half. ….Iowa has won four straight in the series, and its 45 points were the most against the Illini since 1990.
He said it
“We have to ask ourselves, “Was there improvement from the Nebraska game to this one? Yes is the answer,’” said Smith, whose team lost to the Huskers 28-6 last week. “You do have to trust the process. We are.”