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Iowa has won two straight games in dominating fashion with an intense focus on the margins of football games

Iowa v Iowa State Photo by David Purdy/Getty Images

Yesterday, the #10 Iowa Hawkeyes (2-0, 1-0) put up the third lowest total yards (173) in a win during Kirk Ferentz’s tenure. The other two occurred in 2004 (at Penn State, 168 yards) and 2009 (vs Minnesota, 171 yards) for teams known much more for their defensive prowess than any offensive output. This year looks to be very much in light with those groups.

What is most impressive through two games where Iowa did not reach a number many FBS schools will reach in a game (474 yards) is just how dominant the victories have been. They’ve made two presumably top 25 teams look silly in their combined 61-23 shellacking of the #9 Iowa State Cyclones (1-1) and Indiana Hoosiers (1-1).

They’ve done this by absolutely maxing out the areas which are not the traditional focus of a box score.

The first spot, is the most obvious: turnovers. Iowa upped the ante from last week with four against Iowa State. Iowa added another touchdown return, too. What is most important about each one is how Iowa creates huge field position advantages as a result as each started a Hawkeye possession in plus territory.

Special teams was particularly disruptive for the Hawkeyes, as well, specifically the punting differential. The Hawkeyes allowed just one punt return on eight beautiful balls off of Tory Taylor’s foot - the net punting? 49.8 yards. That’s the full field. On average! Iowa State, by contrast allowed four returns (average of 13.3) on seven punts for a net punt of 34.7 yards.

Two instances stick out where Iowa was exceptional in all areas:

  • Iowa opened their first three possessions on their 27, 39, and ISU’s 41 yard-line. All while gaining just 12 yards. Now, the defense needs to be great - they allowed 15 - but that is aided by two ISU possessions starting inside their own 10-yardline. Unfortunately, Iowa was not able to capitalize and missed a field goal. This was Iowa State’s best field position on the day - their 32.
  • The singular time Iowa was pinned - a series which started at their 10 ended at the 6 - Tory Taylor booted a 69-yarder to start ISU’s drive at their 25. His ability contrasts with ISU’s inability to capitalize on the defense’s latest 3-and-out. Tarique Milton let a punt hit right at his feet and bounce 15-yards before Terry Roberts preemptively downed it*. All of this despite Iowa having what appeared to be punt protect against a called punt return setup.

the way Taylor’s punt was bouncing made me think we’d see a 90-yarder

Iowa is also as well coached as any in the punt return rules - watch how each Hawkeye will aid Charlie Jones in his return by “fly by” blocking would-be tacklers. It is genuinely incredible to watch.

Yet the way these games turns out - fairly or unfairly - some offensive performances to desire. The most obvious being Spencer Petras’ lack of ... modern ... statistics. In 2 games he hasn’t exceeded 50% passing, let alone 60% passing.

That’s not ideal!

It makes it absolutely tricky for the layman to evaluate his performance. Yet Kirk Ferentz’s Iowa Football team exists outside of the modern landscape. He’s created an ecosystem, built on the aptitude of Phil Parker & LeVar Woods - where offensive performance is entirely situational. Because of this the ways to evaluate Petras is, as far as I can tell, three tenants:

  • Do not turn the ball over - with the built in advantage here, Iowa exposing themselves to turnover risk simply getting to a punt is, unironically, a win.
  • Do not make the wrong play - by my count, Petras had mayyybe 3 passes where he exposed Iowa to the above turnover risk.
  • Keep it moving - get plays in on time (Iowa did not have a penalty until the 4th quarter), run clock (Iowa won the time of possession), and complete enough passes.

Right now, Iowa is in a position where they require way too many college-aged students to make too right a play too many times. Iowa even got away with a couple mistakes here - the wayward snap on Caleb Shudak’s missed FG & the onside kick going through Nico Ragaini’s hands but out of bounds. Obviously, though, they’re going against college kids as well and came out way on top in that highly subjective category. Though it never felt at risk in the 4th quarter...they were a made field goal and another botched onside kick recovery away from Hunter Dekkers having the chance for ISU to tie it up.

It’s always been this way, though. It’s just rarely reached these heights of dominance (points) amidst lows (in yardage output).

Further, it makes Iowa difficult to project as their style is so dependent of opponents making mistakes. What do the Hawks look like when they face a team not so eager to shirk his run game (Matt Campbell backed up his “rip it” quote out of halftime to Holly Rowe by granting All-American Breece Hall one touch in the first two drives)? What happens if a game gets into the fourth quarter needing the offense to make plays? Will Iowa be able to recover from their own mistakes?

Iowa’s two wins now grant them the two best combined wins in the country. They’ll very likely enter the re-entry of conference season as a fringe CFP candidate.

And until they’re tested down the stretch of a game, let’s appreciate the fact they haven’t needed to be tested down the stretch of a game.