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IOWA CITY, Iowa — The argument can be made that Illinois’ first drive of Saturday’s game at Iowa was one of its best of the season.

The Illini marched 75 yards downfield on 12 plays. Converted a trio of third down opportunities. It was the epitome of efficiency with quarterback Brandon Peters completing 6 of 7 passes, including a 13-yard strike to Luke Ford for the first touchdown of the game.

That burst of effective offense, though, was merely a mirage.

A hazy view of an offensive oasis Illinois has long sought this season and never quite reached.

Including Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.

The Illini followed that Peters-to-Ford touchdown with a gifted field goal after a botched Iowa snap, but then just ground to a halt offensively. Three-and-out after three-and-out, punt after punt and penalty after penalty, Illinois couldn’t take advantage of a relatively close game before falling 33-23 to No. 18 Iowa in front of an announced Kinnick crowd of 64,132.

“It starts with turnovers and penalties and mental errors,” said Illinois assistant head coach George McDonald, who was filling in for Bret Bielema. The Illini coach didn’t make the trip after testing positive for COVID-19 on Monday.

“(Bielema) talks about it all the time,” McDonald continued. “(On Saturday) it was the penalties. We had some turnovers late. We’ve got one more chance — one more opportunity — to come together and put it all together. I think when we’re in rhythm, and we’re doing the things we feel help us win, we’re really good. Anybody can say that, but staying in that moment and staying in that rhythm of not hurting yourself and just taking what the defense gives you is something that we’re always preaching. We’re really close and look really good. We’ve just got to stay in that moment longer.”

Illinois couldn’t hold on to that moment against Iowa. After racking up 75 yards on 12 plays on the opening drive, the Illini managed just 69 yards on 24 plays the rest of the half, which included a quartet of three-and-out drives. The Hawkeyes took the lead in the interim and never relinquished it.

“When you come into a ranked opponents’ house, you just want to make plays constantly,” Illinois wide receiver Isaiah Williams said. “Play after play after play and just quiet the crowd. When you don’t do enough of that, it’s frustrating.

“I feel like the offense, we’ve got to do a better job of helping the defense. As of late, our defense has been playing great. Our offense, we’ve got to pick it up, find ways to move the ball and just help the defense.”

Defense and special teams kept Illinois in Saturday’s game. The Illini defense forced Iowa to kick field goal after field goal, with senior kicker Caleb Shudak making 4 of 5 for the game. Three made field goals from James McCourt provided the scoring when the Illinois offense couldn’t finish drives.

“As an offense, if you’re not scoring every time, you’re kind of frustrated,” McDonald said. “The way our defense plays is inspiring. They give us confidence, because they go out and they put out the fire repeatedly — over and over. That’s a testament to Ryan Walters and his defensive staff.

“Our guys feed off of that. When they get a stop and they get a big play, they’re ready to go out and execute. It’s a matter of us continuing to build the (offensive) chemistry and continuing to clean up our little mistakes. Pretty soon we’re going to have a team that’s pretty fun to watch and hard to beat.”

Illinois has likely just one more opportunity to do that this season with the Nov. 27 regular-season finale against Northwestern. The Land of Lincoln Trophy will be on the line, and the Illini will likely need to show more consistency on the offensive end to take the trophy back from what’s become its semi-permanent home in Evanston.

Consistency and balance. Illinois rushed 25 times for 64 yards Saturday against Iowa. Peters ultimately completed 16 of 36 passes for 248 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. One of which was returned for a touchdown by Iowa linebacker Jack Campbell.

“We kind of saw them as a running team, and we wanted to shut that down and make them one dimensional,” Iowa hybrid safety/linebacker Dane Belton said. “I feel like the passing game we had a couple slips. They had a couple deep balls and got some routes open on us.

“The way we prepare, we want to make every play. We want to have an incompletion or a pick on every play. It just doesn’t happen like that, but we want to pride ourselves on being better.”

Williams said the key for Illinois offensively will be that game where the Illini are able to strike a balance between running the football and being effective in the passing game. And Illinois running back Chase Brown agrees with McDonald that Illinois is getting closer to being what it wants to be offensively, but Saturday in Iowa City wasn’t it.

“We’re getting better at what we do,” Brown said. “We’re getting better at our offense. We were trying to find something big — a bigger play — but it’s tough when you can’t turn over the chains. That was kind of the story of the day. … We weren’t able to move the chains. Tie that with some penalties. They kill our drives. That was tough.”

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).

College/Prep Sports Reporter

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).

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