Kaleb Johnson’s 30-yard touchdown run with 4:43 left lifted No. 16 Iowa to a 15-13 Big Ten victory over Illinois that clinched the West Division title Saturday afternoon at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa.
Quarterback Deacon Hill completed 19 of 29 passes for 167 yards and a touchdown while Iowa’s defense forced a safety and broke up 13 passes — four by cornerback Jermari Harris — to take the Hawkeyes (9-2, 6-2) to their second Big Ten championship-game appearance in three years.
Illinois quarterback John Paddock, the Big Ten’s reigning Offensive Player of the Week after throwing for 507 yards against Indiana, hit 22 of 47 passes for 215 yards. Reggie Love III rushed 18 times for 64 yards and the lone touchdown for Illinois (5-6, 3-5), which must win Saturday against Northwestern at home to claim a bowl berth.
Iowa played without junior cornerback Cooper DeJean, one of five finalists for the Nagurski Trophy that goes to the nation’s best defensive player. He underwent surgery after breaking his leg in Wednesday’s practice and is expected to miss the rest of the season.
Iowa broke to a 2-0 lead on Illinois’ first possession with its FBS-leading third safety of the season. Facing third-and-long from the 5, Paddock fumbled in the end zone while in defensive end Joe Evans’ grasp. Illini tackle Zy Crisler recovered in the end zone at the 11:24 mark of the first.
Illinois didn’t run any plays that gained positive yardage on its first two drives but nabbed a 3-2 lead on Caleb Griffin’s 52-yard field goal with 3:19 left in the first.
Iowa reclaimed a 9-3 lead with 10:20 to go in the first half on Hill’s 4-yard touchdown pass to tight end Addison Ostrenga in the back of the end zone to cap a 75-yard drive.
Illinois came right back with its own 75-yard march to retake the lead, with Love’s 1-yard plunge giving the Illini the 10-9 edge with 6:53 left in the half. The Illini increased their lead to 13-9 on Griffin’s 29-yard field goal on the first play of the fourth quarter.
After punting on five consecutive possessions, Iowa produced the game-winning score on Johnson’s 30-yard run with 4:43 to go. Illinois’ Alec Bryant blocked Drew Stevens’ extra point to open the window for a game-winning field goal, but Iowa’s defensive line knocked down back-to-back passes to end Illinois’ last drive.