“The Iowa Hawkeyes are on a three-game winning streak!” is a sentence I would have liked to use as an opening in this space a week or two ago.
The Hawkeyes’ 3-2 start is certainly better than many of the starts we’ve seen around the Big Ten and look no further than the latest opponent Iowa took down: the Penn State Nittany Lions are 0-5 for the first time ever.
Yet the Hawks’ last three games have come by collective margin of 125-35. It’s the first time they’ve had three straight conference games of 35 points scored in any single season. The standard they’ve set in victories over Penn State, Minnesota, and Michigan State was one they did not live up to in their first two games.
But 3-2 is better than 2-3 is better than 0-5 is better than not playing. So we’ll shelve the negativity...for now.
In five games, Iowa has allowed no more than 24 points in any single game, a statistic matched in the conference by only Northwestern (20) and Wisconsin (17). The story of Iowa Hawkeye football under Kirk Ferentz begins and ends there, with the defense. Iowa will always have a chance of winning when the defense does not allow more than that.
While the logic of placing so much game-in, game-out pressure on one single unit cuts against the broad “it’s a team game” sentiment which emanates from Iowa City, the sustainability of it is as undeniable as it is seemingly implausible.
In addition to the normal churn of seniors graduating, Iowa lost its leading sacker each from the last two years (AJ Epenesa). In his stead, the defensive line has only become more dominant with Daviyon Nixon leading the way. Nixon continuously finds himself in opponent backfields as he battles with unique athleticism and length from the defensive tackle position. He is used a number of ways including sliding outside to defensive end spots, as a spy, and of most recent note, in coverage.
The Iowa line lived in Penn State’s backfield, accumulating five total sacks and 10 tackles for loss. Phil Parker amped up the pressure with a number of blitzes as Zach VanValkenburg recovered two fumbles and Chauncey Gholston intercepted a pass off a deflection. Iowa’s +3 turnover margin brings it to +7 on the season.
There aren’t enough spots for capable linebackers. With Iowa’s shift to a 4-2-5, Barrington Wade often finds himself on the sideline while Jack Campbell and Seth Benson rotate in the middle as each seems to one-up the other in the game. Nick Niemann had a laughably high 17 tackles as he was all over the field. This goes without folding highly regarded redshirt freshman Jestin Jacobs into the mix and overlooks Djimon Colbert, who is sitting the year out due to COVID-19 related concerns.
If there was one area which underperformed, it was the defensive backfield, but only after Iowa built a 24-point lead and forced James Franklin to bring in Sean Clifford, Penn State’s QB who began the season as starter before being benched ahead of today’s game. He came in and threw touchdowns on back-to-back plays - 28 and 68 yards - as a number of pump fakes held Iowa’s secondary before throwing the aforementioned interceptions.
Overall, the stout Hawkeye defense offered short fields to the offense for touchdown drives of 41, 49, and 54 yards after turning Penn State over.
The Hawkeye defense provides a foundation with which Kirk Ferentz can build the house of Iowa football every game, and every season. Right now, despite heaping 34 points on Penn State, the offense is still struggling to find the right balance in both run/pass splits and route combinations to help Spencer Petras succeed.
Overall, the numbers were very encouraging, especially in the first half. Though Petras missed some throws, Brian Ferentz honed in on passes & first reads he could complete en route to a 12/18, 140-yard half. Mekhi Sargent and Tyler Goodson combined for six plays of 10+ yards, including an explosive first quarter where the Hawks gashed Penn State for over 10 yards/carry on just six carries.
Eight different receivers caught a pass after Petras completed just nine passes the prior week. Nico Ragaini and Brandon Smith, in particular, were dusted off to have 73 combined yards.
Iowa struggled to sustain offense in the second half, an unfortunate recurring theme throughout this season, which made the game closer than it should have been. Yet there is much for them to build on after a strong offensive performance and they seem to have a willing foe in their next opponent, the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
As Kirk Ferentz and company have demonstrated over the last five meetings, Iowa has added a little extra salt when they line up against their rivals from the west. After blowout wins in ‘16 and ‘17, Scott Frost’s arrival has lined up with a renewed focus from the Cornhuskers in two FG-sized Iowa wins the last two years.
While the Heroes Game has proven to be a real source of pride for the Hawkeye faithful over the latter part of the decade I can’t help but wonder “what if?” after seeing Northwestern assert themselves as the runaway division favorites with just three games to play.
What if Iowa placed the extra oomph against Northwestern we see every year on Black Friday? What if Iowa were 4-1, instead of 3-2? 3-2 is, of course, a fine spot to be. But 4-1 and in pole position of the division would be better.
It’s okay to want better.