Iowa rallies in 4th quarter to beat Illinois, clinch Big Ten West title

Kaleb Johnson’s 30-yard touchdown run with 4:43 to play gave Iowa its third division title and second in three years.

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Iowa wide receiver Kaleb Brown runs from Illinois defensive backs Miles Scott (10) and Zachary Tobe in the first half Saturday.

Charlie Neibergall/AP

IOWA CITY, Iowa — For all their struggles this season, the Illini entered their final two games of the regular season with a path to win the Big Ten West and play in the conference championship.

Now they need a win just to become bowl-eligible.

Illinois had No. 16 Iowa on the ropes Saturday but couldn’t land the knockout punch, dropping a taut 15-13 decision.

Kaleb Johnson’s 30-yard touchdown run with 4:43 to play gave the Hawkeyes (9-2, 6-2 Big Ten) the lead, and they held on to win the West for the second time in three years and third overall.

They’ll face either Michigan or Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game Dec. 2 in Indianapolis.

The Illini (5-6, 3-5) must beat Northwestern next Saturday in Champaign for the required six wins for bowl-eligibility.

Coach Bret Bielema ended up staying with the hot hand and started quarterback John Paddock over the returning Luke Altmyer (concussion) after Paddock threw for 507 yards last Saturday in an overtime victory against Indiana. Bielema had said Wednesday that Altmyer would play.

But Iowa’s elite defense held Paddock to 215 yards. Trailing by two with a chance to drive for the potential game-winning field goal, Paddock threw incomplete on fourth-and-two from his team’s 33-yard line, giving the ball back to the Hawkeyes with 3:44 to play.

Bielema said he had decided on the play before that he would go for it on fourth down.

“The offense felt strong at that point,” Bielema said. “We failed to execute it, but we knew we still had a chance to stop them.”

Johnson then ran 12 yards for a first down on Iowa’s ensuing possession, and the Hawkeyes ran out the clock.

Iowa, ranked 130th in the nation in total offense, outgained the Illini 281-280. The Hawkeyes got their other points on a first-quarter safety when Paddock was sacked in the end zone and on Deacon Hill’s four-yard touchdown pass to tight end Addison Ostrenga in the second quarter.

Illinois scored on a one-yard touchdown run by Reggie Love III in the second quarter and two field goals from Caleb Griffin.

The win touched off an emotional celebration in the Iowa locker room, where coach Kirk Ferentz was handed the game ball by defensive coordinator Phil Parker.

“We’ve gone through some bumps, had some things happen throughout the season,” said Ferentz, who picked up his 195th Big Ten win, moving him past Bo Schembechler for third place all-time. “No matter what, these guys stayed together.

The Hawkeyes have had to survive injuries to key players — quarterback Cade McNamara, tight ends Luke Lachey and Erick All and cornerback Cooper DeJean all have suffered season-ending injuries. Iowa interim athletics director Beth Goetz announced Oct. 30 that offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz would be out of a job at the end of the season.

The Hawkeyes’ two losses — a 31-0 defeat to Penn State on Sept. 23 and a 12-10 defeat to Minnesota on Oct. 21 — came at times when the season seemed to be getting away.

“I said [after the Penn State game] that all of our goals were still out there in front of us and we could still be Big Ten West champs, we could still be Big Ten champs,” defensive end Joe Evans said. “I’m not sure how well that went with some people — I’m sure they laughed at us. But look at us now.”

Johnson had just four carries for six yards before breaking loose down the right side for the go-ahead score.

“I just saw green grass, so I ran,” Johnson said. “That’s my thing — when I see green grass, I run.”

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