By GAVIN GOOD | Associated Press
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — Backup, walk-on kicker Fabrizio Pinton hit a 36-yard field goal with 2:46 to go and Matthew Bailey made a late interception to lift Illinois to a 9-6 win over Iowa on Saturday night, its first over the Hawkeyes since 2008.
Illinois (5-1, 2-1 Big Ten) is off to its best start since a 6-0 mark in 2011. The Illini also has wins against Iowa and Wisconsin in the same season for the first time since 1989.
Iowa (3-3, 1-2) looked like it might escape Champaign with a dramatic win, but Riley Moss’ 82-yard fumble return for a touchdown was overturned after review when the officials determined that Illinois backup quarterback Art Sitkowski’s wrist was down before he lost the ball.
Pinton was called into action due to an injury for starter Caleb Griffin and went 3 of 3 on the night, including makes from 37 and 27 yards.
“(Take) some deep breaths,” Pinton said. “Do your reps in the nets. I felt good. I just went out there and (kicked).”
A field goal was once again the difference for the Illini, who beat Iowa in 2008 on Matt Eller’s 46-yard field goal with 24 seconds to go.
Illini coach Bret Bielema said Pinton was informed “at kickoff” that he would be taking the field goals after Griffin, who has been day-to-day, told staffers he wasn't feeling well enough to go.
Sitkowski went 13 of 19 for 74 yards passing and an interception after Illinois starter Tommy DeVito left the game in the first quarter with what appeared to be a lower left leg injury.
DeVito completed 6 of 11 passes for 42 yards before the injury.
Iowa struggled to move the ball as Spencer Petras completed 18 of 36 passes for 170 yards and an interception.
Petras took five sacks and the Hawkeyes rushed for just 52 yards.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz reflected on his struggling offense, which entered Saturday last in the FBS in total offense with an average of 242.2 yards per game.
“I think part of that showed tonight, we’ve got some issues up front,” Ferentz said. “We’re young and inexperienced. Again, I thought we made progress last week in that regard. Tonight, not so much.”
Kaleb Johnson, Leshon Williams and Petras pieced together first-down runs on an Iowa drive to start the fourth before an 8-yard tackle for loss by Tarique Barnes and Jer’Zhan “Johnny” Newton forced Iowa’s fourth straight punt.
Williams finished with 32 yards on seven runs.
Sitkowski tallied 10 completions for 16 yards before he eventually connected with Brian Hightower for a 34-yard completion to move into Iowa territory early in the fourth. The Hawkeyes defense had yet to allow a gain that large through five games.
Illinois didn’t turn it into points though as Sitkwoski was intercepted by Quinn Schulte at the 1-yard line a few players later.
Chase Brown tallied more than 100 yards rushing for the seventh time this season for the Fighting Illini, more than any other running back in school history. He finished with 146 yards on 31 carries after entering the week leading the country in yards rushing.
“I knew Chase would kind of grind it out, wear them down and make a couple big plays,” Bielema said. “And that's exactly how it played out.”
Pinton capped a 17-play, 66-yard drive to open the scoring with a 27-yard field goal and he added a 37-yard field goal at the 8-minute mark of the second quarter.
Iowa kicker Drew Stevens equalized from 32 yards later in the quarter before Pinton nudged Illinois back ahead.
A pair of Isaiah Williams fumbles set up Iowa in prime real estate, once at the Illinois 9-yard line, but the Hawkeyes settled for a 27-yard field goal from Stevens to tie the game at 6 headed into the half.
Five of six Iowa drives went for negative yardage during the second and third quarters.
Ferentz said he would not fire his son and offensive coordinator, Brian Ferentz, during the Hawkeyes' bye week after another dreary showing.
“No, we won 10 games last year,” Ferentz said. “I don't know if you're aware of that. So I look at that, and we've won a lot of games since 2015. We're not doing well enough right now, that's fairly obvious.”
The Iowa offense has been held to seven or fewer points in half its games this season.
Bielema said he did not believe any of the Illini's injuries were “catastrophic" and that DeVito “re-aggravated” an ankle injury in the first quarter. DeVito has completed 107 of 153 passes this season for 1,121 yards, nine touchdowns and two interceptions.
Illinois: Nobody outside the locker room saw the Illini as Big Ten West contenders in August, but that’s where they are at the midway point of the season. Bret Bielema’s group could take firm control of the division lead when Minnesota (4-1, 1-1 Big Ten) visits next week.
Iowa: It is time for the Hawkeyes to do some serious reflection about their offensive identity. Despite plenty of opportunities, the Hawkeyes completed 49% of their passes and averaged a measly 1.7 yards per rush. That won’t fly, even with their stellar defense.
Iowa: The Hawkeyes get a bye before a tough matchup at No. 3 Ohio State on Oct. 22.
Illinois: Hosts Minnesota on Saturday.
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