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Overreaction Monday: Hawkeyes Step on the Gas

The Iowa Hawkeyes boat raced Indiana on Saturday. What does that mean for the rest of the season?

Iowa v Indiana
Nate Stanley was slinging bullets on Saturday. So was Brian Ferentz.
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

When we started talking about Iowa football this offseason, there was a steady drum beat from fans and media alike. It wasn’t a certainty, but I think most of us were expecting to see a productive offense and a suspect defense. After all, the defense was replacing all three linebackers and a pair of All-Americans in Josey Jewell and Josh Jackson. The offense, despite losing a dynamic playmaker like Akrum Wadley, had weapons at tight end with Noah Fant and TJ Hockenson. They also had a returning QB who damn near set the single season passing TD record in his first year as the signal caller and book end offensive tackles who will be playing on Sundays when they graduate... in three years.

But then we watched the first few games and the script was flipped on it’s head. The offense looked.... fine. The defense? The defense looked AWESOME. Through three games, it was at the top of the national ranking for scoring defense, sacks, and a number of other metrics.

With the matchup against Wisconsin, there were both signs for optimism and concern on both sides of the ball. But coming out of the bye week, the injury bug reared its ugly head and now we’ve seen the script flipped back to where we saw it this offseason.

Due to the loss of both starting cornerbacks, the defense was all of a sudden a bit vulnerable. In response, we saw the offense put up points last week in a way we hadn’t seen since the end of last year.

As those injuries continued to mount, compounded by the loss of Amani Jones for the first half due to a targeting penalty, I think I speak for all Hawkeye fans when I say I was a bit worried about Iowa keeping up with the high powered offense of Indiana. I expected them to put up points and the Hawkeyes to need an answer.

Boy oh boy did they.

What we saw on Saturday was as close to a complete game as I think we’ve seen since that incredible 55-24 victory over Ohio State last November (people forget Iowa is the last team to beat the Buckeyes). Despite the injuries, the defense settled in, holding that Indiana offense to a season low 16 points.

The Hoosiers looked like they were going to dink and dunk the Hawkeyes to death on their first drive, which was a concern coming in. Quick hitters are one way to negate the incredible Iowa pass rush and with a pair of true freshmen still manning the corners, it seemed like a solid strategy.

Then it wasn’t. Iowa was able to get to Ramsey for their 19th and 20th sacks of the season. More importantly, they picked Ramsey off twice in the endzone. The defensive line dominated, holding Indiana to only 67 rushing yards. The Hoosiers finished with 330 total yards and a good chunk of that came in the second half as they were playing catch up and Iowa was perfecting the bend, don’t break philosophy with a lead.

As impressive as the defense was this week, the real story was the offense, which was tremendous. It gave us a window into what we thought the offense could be. But it was perhaps even better than we might have expected.

What we saw Saturday may have appeared to be a major shift in offensive philosophy to the untrained eye. It was downright exciting.

For the second week in a row, we saw Nate Stanley put on an absolute clinic for all but a play or two and we saw Brian Ferentz dial up some good ones. We saw history.

Stanley threw for 300 yards for the second straight week. That’s only the second time in Kirk Ferentz’s tenure an Iowa QB has done that and the first time since Drew Tate did it in 2004.

He did it in thrilling fashion, finding 9 different receivers and throwing for 6 (SIX!!) touchdowns to 5 different Hawkeyes, including the talented TE duo, a WR, a RB and a FB (!!). That’s the third time Stanley has thrown for 5 or more touchdowns in a game (the other two being Iowa State a season ago, and the aforementioned 55-24 victory over Ohio State last season, which people often forget).

Stanley is now 16th in the country in touchdown passes and 25th in yards per attempt. At 41 career touchdown passes now, Stanley passed CJ Beathard (40) on the all-time passing touchdown list at Iowa to move into a tie with Matt Rodgers in 5th. He’s a lock to top Matt Sherman’s 43 and move into 4th before the end of the year. With 15 this year, he’s on pace to finish with 30 on the season. It’s doubtful he’ll get there, but if he does he would not only take the single season record he nearly grabbed last year (26) from Chuck Long (27). And he’d be well-positioned to top Long’s career record of 74. With the way this offense is beginning to shape up and the weapons surrounding him, it doesn’t seem out of the question.

But it wasn’t just the passing game that was rolling on Saturday. Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz utilized the pass on first and second down frequently to stay ahead of the chains and keep the Hoosier defense on their heels.

The passing opened up running lanes and the offense was clicking on all cylinders. Stanley often saw Indiana in man coverage and took advantage throwing deep to speedster Ihmir Smith-Marsette, who only hauled in a single catch for 2 yards, but drew a number of pass interference calls to move the chains.

After the Hoosiers adjusted to the Hawkeyes going to the air, Toren Young gashed them on the ground. He finished the day just shy of the century mark with 96 rushing yards on 19 carries.

Despite the virtual air raid attack we witnessed and the utter jubilation from Hawkeye fans at the willingness to throw early and often, the day ended as Kirk Ferentz has long indicated he’d like it - a dead split between the run and pass. Stanley attempted 33 passes and the Hawkeyes rushed 32 times. That last pass attempt was merely a throw away on the final play of the game to ensure all 4 remaining seconds ticked off.

The offense scored 42 points in total, which makes it three straight conference road games the Hawkeyes have topped 40 points (last week at Minnesota, and last year’s season finale at Nebraksa where the Black Shirts gave up 56). That’s the first time since Iowa joined the Big Ten in 1899 they’ve managed to top 40 points in back to back conference road games in the same season.

What we saw Saturday was an incredible show, but perhaps most importantly it was a glimpse into the future for Iowa. It was a test case demonstrating that Kirk can have his balanced attack while Brian takes advantage of what the defense is giving, exploiting their weaknesses and leaning on the Hawkeyes’ strengths.

It should give those questioning Brian’s abilities some faith in his growth as a playcaller. He attacked Indiana from the start of the game to the finish. He ran as his father would have wanted, but he changed things up constantly.

We all saw the results. You’d have to think with each passing week, as Brian gets more comfortable and confident, so does his father. That will be tested in a few weeks with Penn State, but I’m certainly feeling better today than I was on Friday.

This week, Maryland presents a lot of the same problems Indiana did. They have athletes and weapons all over the field. They can stress the Iowa defense in ways we haven’t necessarily seen as of yet.

But they can also be beaten (like, for example, by Temple). The Hawkeyes opened as 12.5 point favorites for Homecoming this weekend. It seems like a lot for any Iowa conference game, but given what we have seen of late with the offensive output and the defense that was so dominant early in the season getting healthy again.

Penn State may be the only game left on the schedule Iowa isn’t favored in. As crazy as it seems, the events of the past weekend have reopened that window of opportunity to win the Big Ten West. Wisconsin was pummeled by Michigan and with Penn State looking human following a loss to Michigan State, anything can happen.

That’s part of the reason we’re seeing national media start to talk about things that would have seemed crazy following Iowa’s loss to the Badgers. Now ranked in the top 25 of both the AP and the Coaches’ polls for the first time since they snuck in at #25 before their abysmal trip to Madison last season and the highest they’ve been since early 2016, the Hawkeyes are being talked about as one of only three Big Ten teams with hopes of making the College Football Playoff.

As crazy as it seems, the Hawkeyes and their sole loss to a top-25 team, are now alone with Ohio State and Michigan and possible candidates from the conference. It’s a tall order, but not entirely out of the realm of possibility. And the team certainly seems to believe they can get it done.

This is the type of talk fans have previously only dreamed about. To hear a player say that publicly may just show the power shift from Kirk to Brian is a real thing. I, for one, am HERE to see the blending of old with new. I’m here for the balanced offense powered by keeping opponents guessing and using the pass to open up the run. I’m here for a defense that rotates defensive linemen to get after opposing quarterbacks and plays true freshmen in high pressure positions. I’m here to see this team punch the gas from start to finish.

Happy Monday. Enjoy Homecoming week. Step on the gas today and don’t let up ‘till we see the weekend. Go Hawks.