I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t have at least a tiny bit of doubt in the back of my mind as things kicked off just after 6:30 on Saturday evening. How could I not? I mean, the last time an FCS opponent walked into Kinnick Stadium, they left with a win. And whenever Iowa and Northern Iowa face off, 2009 creeps into the memory of any Hawkeye fan with a recollection that goes back that far.
Those inklings of doubt were amplified just a bit as I watched the early games on Saturday. There were Big Ten teams struggling left and right. And when I say struggling, I mean losing. I mean, sure there was #6 Wisconsin dropping one at home to unranked BYU, and that’s frustrating for a number of reasons (for starters, how is Iowa going to win another night game against a top 5 team if Wisconsin can’t get into the top 5?), but that was the least of the Big Ten’s problems.
Purdue lost, again, at home to Mizzou. Rutgers got throttled, which is normal, but it came at the hands of Kansas, who never throttles anybody. Maryland, riding the wave of their victory over Texas in week one, fell at home to Temple. Temple. Illinois dropped one at home to South Florida. And Northwestern handed Akron their first win over a Big Ten opponent since 1894.
But perhaps the most embarrassing one of all came in Lincoln, where our Lord and Savior Scott Frost continues to search for his first victory for the Cornhuskers. One would think such a tremendous coaching talent at such a storied institution as Nebraska would have had little trouble getting a win through three weeks of college football, especially with the likes of the aforementioned Akron, Colorado and Troy on the schedule. But apparently that lightning cancellation in week one was so devastating to the savior’s plans that it has spilled over into a loss to Colorado and then on Saturday, the unthinkable - a home loss to Troy.
The result? Nebraska’s first 0-2 start to a season since 1957.
Anyway, all this to say I was a bit on the nervous side going into Saturday evening. UNI is always tough and the thought of Iowa’s season being derailed and their scalp added to the Big Ten pile for the day seemed all too plausible.
That moment came and went in the first few minutes of the game as the Hawkeyes showed me basically everything I hope to see out of them coming into this week’s big matchup against Wisconsin under the lights.
The defense, as usual, was unreal. In each of the three weeks, I wait for the letdown and each week the D looks better than the week before.
In this week’s rendition, UNI was held to only 6 rushing yards for the entire game and -2 for the first half. They didn’t make it into Iowa territory until midway through the third quarter.
The defensive line was wreaking havoc as we’ve come to expect and came away with 3 more sacks. That takes them to 12 on the year - just 18 shy of that magic number of 30 for the year. I’ll go out on a limb and guess they manage to average the 2 per game the rest of the way to get there.
The pressure up front led to Iowa’s second interception of the season. This time around it was Michael Ojemudia, who was close to beating the last man and turning his 29-yard return into a pick-six.
Interestingly, the turnover department is about the only statistical category where the Hawkeyes aren’t among the very top in the country.
Iowa's current national rankings:— Chad Leistikow (@ChadLeistikow) September 16, 2018
Total defense -- 2nd (209.0 ypg)
Scoring defense -- T-2nd (8.0 ppg)
Rushing defense -- T-2nd (42.0 ypg)
Opponent yards/carry -- 3rd (1.54)
Sacks -- T-3rd (12)
The major difference for Iowa on Saturday was the offensive output. After struggling in the passing game in particular through weeks one and two, the major question was whether Brian Ferentz would use the matchup with an FCS opponent to try and fine tune some things for Nate Stanley or keep his cards close to his vest and zone stretch the Panthers to death.
The answer, ultimately, was both. But it was the early passing game that gives me some hope for this offense to get back on the track we expected in the offseason.
Stanley came out of the gates firing, completing 16 of 21 passes in the first half for 215 yards and a TD (as well as an ill-advised INT). The output was better in either of his first two games this year in their entirety.
One of the major drivers was the re-emergence of Nick Easley, who finished the game with 10 catches for 103 yards and a beautiful TD from Stanley.
The outburst from Easley marks the first time an Iowa receiver has hauled in 10 grabs since Keenan Davis did so back in 2011 against Pitt (credit to @mbenson6 for that one).
What I really loved was the apparent effort by Ferentz to get Easley involved. There’s been so much attention paid to the tight ends this season, and rightfully so as they are incredibly talented, but the passing game has struggled in part because there has been littler rhythm.
That changed Saturday with the Hawkeyes going to some tempo early and force-feeding Easley on a number of quick hitters and underneath routes. That led to better rhythm out of Stanley and a much more flowing offense.
We also saw Brian dial up a couple of the old quick WR screens, the jet sweep with a couple different guys (with Ihmir Smith-Marsette sidelined, no less) and finally go to the running backs out of the backfield to the tune of 3 catches for 60 yards among Mekhi Sargent (who did most of the damage on a 48-yarder), Toren Young and fullback Brady Ross.
All in all, it was just what the doctor ordered to get this offense right and get me over my fears about this offense. Granted, it came against an FCS opponent and there’s a decent chance Wisconsin walks into Kinnick on Saturday with their mystical 3-4 defense and completely stymies the Hawkeyes, but you couldn’t ask for much more in week 3.
And don’t think I forgot about Noah Fant. No, no, no. The Fant-om Menace rode the offensive wave on Saturday night right into the record books.
He finished the day with 5 catches for 99 yards, but the big story was his second touchdown catch of the season. It came midway through the first quarter and was the first score of the game. Coming off a massive 48-yard catch and run from Fant, there was a moment where it seemed we might have to wait for the record-breaker, but Brian Ferentz went right back to the talented tight end to put him alone at the top.
Now with 14 career touchdowns and at least nine more games to go in only his junior season (though he will almost certainly be headed for the NFL after this year), Fant not only tops the tight end TD reception record book, but he’s within striking distance of some elite WR company at Iowa. Marvin McNutt’s all-time record at 28 seems safe, but Danan Hughes and Tim Dwight are tied for a distant second at 21 touchdown receptions. That’s a mark that seems well within reach for Fant.
He’s an incredible talent. Enjoy him while he’s here, Hawkeye fans.
Some other quick observations:
Kyle Groeneweg is a stud at punt returner. He ended up with 2 returns for -2 yards, but that hides the monster return he had called back on a block in the back (which didn’t seem necessary to spring him). I love that Brian dialed him up for a jet sweep. He seems really shifty with the ball in his hands.
Stanley finished the game 23 of 28 (82.1%) for 309 yards and 2 TDs with 1 INT. In his first two games of the season he went 27 of 51 (52.9%) for 274 yards and 1 TD with 1 INT.
Ten different Hawkeyes caught a pass.
I’m not sure if it was Easley being healthy, Stanley pressing less or Ferentz dialing up a bunch of quick, underneath stuff, but the passing game got going in a way that we’ll need to see this weekend. Wisconsin’s 3-4 is a different animal, but I liked what I saw from this group and the Badgers don’t exactly look invincible after that showing against BYU. I think the hurry up is a nice wrinkle to get Stanley into rhythm early in the game before you run the risk of the defense getting stuck on the field for long periods.
That said, there will be coaching opportunities this week. There were a number of times Stanley deferred to the underneath route with success, but passed up wide open opportunities at the second level. Brandon Smith seemed to me to be the biggest victim of that, running free between linebackers and safeties a couple of times while Stanley opted for the sure-handed Easley or TJ Hockenson for 3-5 yards.
Again, I’m good with getting into a rhythm and not forcing anything, but if big plays are there for the taking, I don’t think there’s a coach in the world who would tell you to ignore it.
On the defensive side of the ball, Amani Jones looked like he got another opportunity to work with the first team defense in the second half a bit. He seemed OK, but accounted for a couple of special team penalties that won’t help him earn his spot back. He’s a guy that oozes potential and has all the physical gifts in the world, but if you want to talk about pressing, he’s the definition at the moment. He seems too intent on doing anything he can to help out that he’s actually hurting. Hope he gets going. This would be the perfect week for him to make an impact in special teams.
There’s not much more to say about the defensive line. They’re amazing and I think they’ll get theres against Wiscy. Alex Hornibrook doesn’t scare me and I think the one area I’m confident it’s in our quick defensive linemen getting some penetration on Wisconsin’s traditionally gigantic linemen. Good things will happen if that’s the case, as Hornibrook makes some head-scratching decisions at times.
In the secondary, you have to love what Michael Ojemudia has done thus far. We haven’t seen a ton of deep tests, but there was enough from UNI to use as a teaching moment. Matt Hankins, in particular, got burnt a couple times late. Look for continued improvement there as that kid has a sky-high ceiling.
The one major question mark, outside of Iowa attacking the 3-4, is how the stout defense of the Hawkeyes will handle against those road graders and Jonathan Taylor. He’s averaging 172 yards per game on the ground so far this season and has only been held under 100 yards rushing in 4 games throughout his young career. If Iowa can find a way to limit his impact and force 3rd and long, I like the Hawkeyes’ chances to pressure Hornibrook and create turnovers.
Big game under the lights in Kinnick this week folks. Let’s pace ourselves a bit. Embrace the feeling of being undefeated at this point - a lot of out Big Ten brethren would give just about anything to feel this way. Then let’s bring the noise on Saturday night!
Have a Fant-Astic week! Go Hawks! Beat the Badgers!