IOWA CITY – Kirk Ferentz spent Saturday searching for something to provide his Iowa football team with “a little juice."
The Hawkeyes successfully executed an onside kick in the first quarter and a fake punt in the second but they but didn’t find the jolt they needed to get past upset-minded Illinois until Brandon Snyder returned an interception 89 yards for a third-quarter touchdown which sent Iowa on its way to a 45-16 win at Kinnick Stadium.
Returning to action six months to the week after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament during spring practices, the Hawkeyes’ junior free safety stepped in front of Jeff George Jr. pass at the 11-yard line and sprinted to the first pick-six of his career.
“I’ve thought about doing something like that every day since I’ve been out," Snyder said. “I’ve envisioned myself making plays like that once I got back on the field. If you don’t envision it, it will never happen."
Snyder’s score with 6 minutes, 40 seconds remaining in the third quarter extended a hard-earned 17-13 halftime lead for an Iowa team which found itself in a first-half fight with the Fighting Illini.
Illinois found its own spark in sophomore quarterback Jeff George Jr.
Joining a lineup that included seven true freshmen, George orchestrated an offense which piled up 446 yards, picking up 200 yards on the ground to complement the 22-of-45 passing performance of George in his 2017 starting debut.
He made some mistakes – throwing three interceptions including the one Snyder returned for a score – but coach Lovie Smith sensed some growth in his football team.
“When you get the same results at the end, it’s tough. It’s all about who wins and who loses and Iowa did score more points than we did," Smith said.
“But, I don’t think we played as hard as we needed to the past few weeks and I’m not saying that today. I thought our guys battled. We had some moments, but we just weren’t consistent enough."
The Fighting Illini did help themselves to a 13-10 lead late by scoring on consecutive possessions late in the second quarter.
Illinois tied the game on a two-yard touchdown run by Ra’Von Bonner with 6:40 to go in the half and following an interception by Bennett Williams, used a 24-yard field goal by Chase McLaughlin just under four minutes later to erase the remnants of a 10-3 deficit.
Iowa, unable to score after a successful onside kick by Miguel Recinos that followed a first-quarter touchdown reception by Nick Easley, capitalized on its next attempt at trickery.
Facing a fourth-and-five situation from the Illinois 41-yard line, the Hawkeyes lined up to punt but Amani Hooker took the snap 18 yards for a first down and extended a 13-play drive which ended five players later with Akrum Wadley catching a two-yard touchdown pass with :08 left in the half.
“We felt like we needed a little something to get us going and Amani did a great job on that," Ferentz said. “The blocking up front was good and most importantly, we were able to finish after that."
Smith labeled it a “good call, a critical call," but added, “we still had opportunities after that."
The Hawkeyes, like the Illini looking to end a two-game losing streak, had seized a little momentum.
“It was good to have the ball in my hands and have the chance to make a play," Hooker said. “It kept the drive alive and gave us a chance to take the lead at halftime."
Iowa needed more, going three and out on its first two possessions of the third quarter.
George had the Fighting Illini on the move, connecting with Malik Turner for a 27-yard gain to the Iowa 32-yard line and using nine of Mike Epstein’s team-leading 83 rushing yards to move the ball to the Hawkeyes’ 22-yard line for a first down.
Then Snyder took over.
“It’s been a tough few months. I did what I could to help the other guys, but I’d think about it every time I didn’t get a chance to participate in the swarm," he said, referring to the Hawkeyes’ traditional team entry to the field.
“I’d tear up a bit, thinking about not being out there, but it was motivation, too. I did everything I could to get back out there as quick as I could and the medical staff did everything they could to make it happen."
Snyder finished with three tackles and broke up two passes in addition to the one he intercepted to give Iowa a 24-13 lead that came as the Hawkeyes (4-2, 1-2 Big Ten) outscored the Illini 35-3 after falling behind 13-10 late in the first half.
McLaughlin’s third field goal, a 40-yard kick, inched Illinois (2-4, 0-2) within 24-16 after three quarters but the Hawkeyes followed Snyder’s pick six by scoring on three of their final four possessions to break the game open.
During the opening minute of the fourth quarter, Matt VandeBerg scored on a 39-yard pass from Nate Stanley, part of a 17-of-32 performance covering 247 yards and including three touchdowns.
Wadley, who led Iowa with 115 rushing yards on 23 carries, scored on an 18-yard carry and freshman Ivory Kelly-Martin caught a late three-yard touchdown pass from Tyler Wiegers following a Geno Stone interception
“We didn’t get off to the kind of start we wanted, but it was the kind of second half we needed," Stanley said. “We put some things together, had some decent drives. It was what we hoped to have heading into the bye week."