Kaleb Johnson Seals Victory and Big Ten West with Late Score
Six seconds and a 30-yard run later, sophomore running back Kaleb Johnson changed the entire trajectory of the game, scoring the go-ahead touchdown that would eventually seal the win -- and the Big Ten West championship -- 15-13.
"I just saw green grass, and I just ran," Johnson said with a smile following the Iowa victory. "That's my thing, when I see green grass, I run."
"I was really just reading the safety. I was reading if I should press up, go in or go out. I just pressed him, went outside and used my speed to score."
Between myriad injuries, depth chart changes, and the firing of offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, the Iowa football program has seen its fair share of unexpected challenges throughout the season.
Between Deacon Hill at quarterback, losing Cooper DeJean to injury, and the touchdown return that wasn't, it would have been fitting to see one of the lesser-known, next-man-in players provide the breakthrough moment that would send the Hawkeyes to the Big Ten Championship -- an odd play for an odd season.
Instead, Iowa's former RB1 stepped up.
Johnson assumed the starting running back role as a freshman in 2022 and held it until he sustained an ankle injury earlier this season. Following the improved play of Leshon Williams in his absence and the return of Jaz Patterson from injury, the former four-star recruit was sidelined and didn't even receive a carry against Northwestern just two weeks ago.
Not to mention that he hadn't scored a touchdown in over a month, and this one came when it was most needed.
"I've just stayed focused on the little things and just kept grinding, being patient," he said. "When my time came, I just had to take the opportunity and use it to my full advantage."
"It felt like my freshman year and scoring my first touchdown. It was just amazing, man -- being back."
The sideline was just as ecstatic as he was to take the lead.
"It was nuts," senior defensive lineman Logan Lee said. "Everybody -- top to bottom -- staff, coaches and players were just going crazy. Hearing the stadium is always pretty fun, too. It was just great to see everybody celebrate that together."
Johnson didn't just seal the win with a score -- he sealed it with a first down run on the ensuing drive after Illinois turned the ball over on downs. The first down came with just under three minutes remaining, and the Iowa offense held the ball for the remainder of the game.
"I just said in my head 'Let me just get this first down, run with efficiency,'" he said. "I just ran, saw a little crease, and hit it."
"It felt like I did something that was so valuable to the team. All I can do is thank everybody for believing in me and giving me a shot."
Kirk Ferentz is thankful he believed in Johnson, too.
"Kaleb hasn't played a lot in the last couple of weeks," he said following the game. "I'll tell you he's practiced well every day, kept his chin up, and worked forward. To see him break through today is huge, not only for our team, but a good moment for him. Hopefully it taught him a lesson to keep working. When you get called on, you take advantage of every opportunity."