The little things. This is a well-worn refrain from Mr. Vint, but I can't think of a game in the last five years that laid it so plainly clear: Kirk Ferentz's conservative, field-position-heavy coaching on both sides of the ball turns Iowa football games into competitions of details—and Iowa has stopped performing those little things better than its opponents.
Well, except on defense, anyway. More on that in a second.
An unforced error—Jonathan Parker's horrific fumble on a jet sweep thing—led to Ball State's only touchdown of the afternoon. An unforced error—Jonathan Parker's less-horrific-but-still-inopportune fumble on a kickoff return—led to Ball State's second field goal of the day, which put the Cardinals up by 10 midway through the third quarter. Iowa missed three field goals—none of which were even 40 yards long.
Ball State wasn't mistake-free, of course; its only turnover didn't come until its final play from scrimmage, but it was literally a game-killer. The Cardinals missed a field goal of their own too. But if you add up the points left off the board or given out off turnovers, Ball State was +16 on the day—a tough gap for any team to overcome.
If Iowa goes -16 against anyone on its Big Ten schedule, it's almost certainly going to lose. The talent disparity won't be there to bail Iowa out against its peers in recruiting, and even bottom-feeders like Illinois, Purdue and Indiana have quarterbacks who are capable of punishing a still-green Iowa back seven better than Ozzie Effin' Football did.
Or, to put it all more bluntly: that kind of game won't beat anybody in the Big Ten. Either Iowa gets better or Iowa goes 0-8. That's your main takeaway.
About Rudock. A career high in yards (322, his first career game over the 300 mark) is good. Throwing 52 passes and zero picks is good. A game-winning comeback is, obviously, really good. So let's be clear that we're not talking about Vandenbergian meltdown here, and if those little things mentioned above (almost wholly out of Rudock's control) had been taken care of, it would have been a drastically less stressful game for Rudock and everyone else involved. On the "HE LOST US THE DANG GAME" culpability list, Rudock was never going to be #1.
Jake Rudock's day still wasn't very good. Going into the fourth quarter, his numbers were 18/27 for 188 yards and no touchdowns. Even after the comeback, his QB rating on the day was a pedestrian 128.2, the result of a low TD percentage and a stubborn unwillingness to throw downfield. His QB efficiency rating ranks 60th on the year (and eighth among qualified Big Ten QBs), which is rather frightening for someone who hasn't thrown an interception in 93 attempts. And that's after facing an FCS and MAC team. It's nothing but BCS-conference (even if by technicality only) opponents from here on out.
And yet, Rudock did engineer the drives that won Iowa the game. He, not Brandon Scherff, was the most important player on the field in that fourth quarter and he made it happen. Not coincidentally, that's also when Rudock started throwing downfield with any regularity, because the situation demanded it. That situational awareness is what separates Rudock from the obvious bench fodder of the B1G in the past few years (Andrew Maxwell, looking at you on this one) but it also hinges on one key presupposition with which I—and C.J. Beathard—vehemently disagree: the first three quarters are not when to attack the secondary with any urgency.
@marcmorehouse If first downs equaled points, there'd be no questioning who the starter should be. Love CJB's desire to score 6.— Anthony Long (@AnthonySLong) September 8, 2014
Much has been and will be made of Beathard's gorgeous 3rd down deep ball that Damond Powell couldn't pull in successfully for a touchdown, but Beathard's previous pass of the drive was just as notable. On it, Beathard threw a fast pass to Ray Hamilton, who had broken into an opening in the middle of the field and rumbled for 13 yards. It was the type of throw Rudock would never make, because Rudock's read is never to Hamilton that quickly, and it's also what made us in the stands notice that hey wait, that's not Rudock in the game at all.
It shouldn't warrant mention, much less repetition, but here we are: you cannot be a successful pass-thrower in the Big Ten if you're afraid to test opposing secondaries. At some point you've got to make the defenders make the play, and wouldn't you know it: Rudock was successful when he put the onus on Ball State, who was not nearly talented enough to shut Iowa down. Rudock's stats on the final three drives—13/21, 119 yards, 2 TDs, QB rating of 140.9—are more than enough for Iowa to be a winning team in 2014. He's got to play like that the whole game, though. Did he earn the confidence from both himself and the coaching staff to do just that?
And the defense. It's probably not fair to relegate the defensive performance to third billing in this recap, because if the D has even a pedestrian performance there is no comeback. After Iowa punted the ball away down 10 points with 7:17 left, some stupid idiot posted this on Twitter:
HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA THEYRE PUNTING THE GAME IS OVER— Adam Jacobi (@Adam_Jacobi) September 6, 2014
And to be clear: if Ball State had gained even one first down, the game was—barring weird stuff—over.
Ball State did not earn another first down.
Iowa forced two three-and-outs on Ball State's next two possessions, allowing less than two minutes to come off the clock (and wisely* spending all three timeouts in the process). Allowing one first down would have let Ball State take more than two minutes more off the clock. Iowa's go-ahead touchdown came with just 1:00 left. You can probably do the math from there and figure out exactly how precarious Iowa's position was when that last Dillon Kidd punt went boom.
So yes, those two three-and-outs were heroic efforts by a defensive line that put up its second dominant performance in as many weeks, to say nothing of Drew Ott sealing the game on Ball State's last gasp by sacking Mann and forcing the clinching fumble in the process. Ross already posted the stats. They were superlative.
The baseline has now been set at "DESTROY." Iowa's not going to get that level of dominance from any other unit on defense in 2014. If the little things aren't going to be taken care of, this big thing has to be. The Hawkeyes need it every week or everything goes to hell. No pressure.
*It's not unusual to see some teams in similar situations save a timeout for their own last drive, which I cannot comprehend. The point of a timeout in that situation is to save time from coming off the clock. Nothing you do on offense in a hurry-up situation will take nearly as much time off the clock as a team trying to run the game out. Letting 40 seconds off now so you might save 20 in the future is pure idiocy. Iowa managed its timeouts correctly.