What a glorious, beautiful Monday morning this is. I mean, I have no idea if it really is beautiful wherever it is you are, dear reader, but whatever the weather outside, it’s wonderful.
That is, of course, because for the 1,458th consecutive day, Iowa fans can walk into the office, factory, construction site, coffee shop, whatever, knowing the Hawkeyes were victorious over the Cyclones.
It wasn’t always pretty (if we’re being honest, it was almost never pretty), but a win is a win and Iowa got it. And it should give Hawkeye fans both optimism and pessism for the remainder of this season.
On the one hand, the offense looked totally inept for a good portion of this game. And I mean a GOOD portion.
The Hawkeyes went into halftime tied 3-3, after managing only 73 yards of total offense. Perhaps even more baffling, Iowa had only 26 passing yards and no completions to a wide receiver.
It was one of the most frustrating halves of football I’ve watched as a Hawkeye fan, which is saying something.
On the other hand, it was still 3-3 at halftime DESPITE all the negatives on the offensive end. The defense looked very good in the first half, holding the Cyclones to only 105 yards of total offense. David Montgomery, Iowa State’s fantastic running back who Kirk Ferentz referred to as the best RB Iowa will face all season last week, was held in check with only 34 yards on 13 carries.
It was a microcosm for the game as a whole.
Time after time, we saw the offense sputter out, shoot itself in the foot and look totally inept. Time after time we saw the defense come up with big time stops, timely sacks and that lone turnover.
The defense was what we’ve come to expect under defensive coordinator Phil Parker and then some. Through two games, the Iowa defense is top 5 in the country in total defense, having given up less than 400 yards of offense, and first in the nation in scoring defense among teams who have played more than one game, having only given up 10 points.
It’s been tremendous.
And that’s despite breaking in a trio of new linebackers and still trying to figure out who will play where. The pressure the defensive line is able to get has been spectacular and goes a long way to covering any potential coverage issues you might see with those new linebackers in coverage or questions we might have had about the corners holding up.
Honestly, we haven’t seen them tested much, but that’s because opponents have struggled to get enough time for 5-step drops needed for deep passes. Through 2 games, the Hawkeyes have 9 sacks. That puts them on pace for - wait for it - 54 sacks. Fifty. Four.
Now, I don’t think we actually get there, but they don’t really need to. As (one of) our fearless leader(s) so aptly pointed out in the defensive line preview for the season, the Hawkeyes have recorded 30 or more sacks three times in the Kirk Ferentz era. In each of those seasons (2002, 2009 and 2015) Iowa has won at least 11 games. I feel pretty confident this team will get 20 more sacks over the next 10 games.
While it was easy to suggest the performance in week one was simply due to the opponent, we now have two games of evidence this defense is very good. Northern Illinois, you’ll recall, was picked to win the MAC by more than a few people. And Iowa State, for all their improvements on the defensive side from a year ago, is built for the Big 12 where offense reigns supreme. It didn’t matter.
This is the type of defense special seasons are made of.
But even the best defenses need some help from time to time. It’s too much to ask them to hold every opponent to a single score. It’s too much to expect them to come onto the field after offensive 3-and-outs over and over without feeling a let down.
That’s what we’ve seen from this offense through two games. It’s been rough and it starts with the passing game.
A season after coming dangerously close to Chuck Long’s single season passing TD record as a sophomore, Nate Stanley has not looked like himself. His deep passes have admittedly looked better than a year ago, but he’s thrown enough short balls into the turf to draw out memories of Jake Christensen that I had long since repressed.
Against Iowa State, Stanley finished 16-28 for 166 yards and no touchdowns. As rough as the stat line sounds, it was actually an improvement on week one, where Stanley went 11-23 for only 108 yards with his touchdown pass offset by an interception. Through two games, Stanley is completing just under 53% of his passes and has just the lone touchdown and 274 total passing yards.
Of all the offensive woes we saw last week, this is by far the most concerning going forward. Under Kirk Ferentz, Iowa has always been and always will be a run-first team. The Hawkeyes need to be able to run the ball to control the clock and set up play action. But they can’t run the ball with much success with opponents stacking the box and selling out to stop the run.
Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz deserves some of the blame as the play calling has left something to be desired through two games, but things would certainly look different if we didn’t see the quick passing game completely sputter with Stanley missing throws and guys like Noah Fant dropping easy catches.
We did see Ferentz the younger take some shots last week with the 45-yarder from Stanley to Ihmir Smith-Marsette and the beautiful 30-yard shot to Brandon Smith. I think I speak for all of us when I say we need more of it. And a few more route combinations that actually run guys open would be OK by me.
One of the best parts of the late starts we’ve had the first couple weeks is being able to watch bits and pieces of a number of other games around the country. One of the things that jumps off the screen in nearly every one, regardless of the teams involved, is the number of receivers in open space catching passes. There’s no reason Iowa can’t do that.
There was a time when we didn’t have the athletes at the position to do certain things, but that time has come and gone. Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette have the physical tools to do basically anything you could ask of a pair of receivers. With the talent at tight end, defenses are limited and we’re still looking to see the Hawkeyes take advantage of it on a regular basis.
I don’t expect to see much against Northern Iowa, not with the potential for Toren Young to grind on the Panthers for three downs. But my faith in the staff simply holding back plays and schemes for a big game is waning. There was no time like a tight one with Iowa State to pull out the stops and what we saw left a lot to be desired.
But at the end of the day, it was enough to get it done. The defense pulled through and the offense got just enough to get the Hawkeyes over the top. As much as I hope the offense does more to pull their weight down the stretch, a win is a win and this was the fourth straight over the Cyclones.
The most impressive thing about the win to me is that at the end of the day, the Hawkeyes showed that they can beat Iowa State in whatever game Matt Campbell and crew choose. A year ago, that meant throwing the ball all over the field and being better at Big 12 ball than the Cyclones. Campbell has tried to emulate Iowa and the Big Ten style of play and this year he walked into Kinnick and Kirk Ferentz beat him in a rock fight.
No matter what game they choose, this will remain the Hawkeye state.
Happy Monday. Go Hawks. 369 days until we travel to Ames.