You play to win the game. You play…. To win the game.
On Saturday, the Iowa Hawkeyes won the game. It was not at all pretty. It was not at all what Hawkeye fans wanted to see. It was not at all what anyone outside the CSU locker room (perhaps) expected. But at the end of the day. The Hawkeyes moved ahead to 4-0 on this young season and escaped becoming yet another victim of the chaos we saw around the world of college football on Saturday.
Getting there, however, was not at all comfortable for the Hawkeyes or Iowa fans for the first 48 or so minutes and there are now a number of questions that need addressed as we enter the meat of the Big Ten schedule.
Iowa’s offense had just two possessions in the first quarter and came away with only 29 yards and no points. That was emblematic of the entire day for the Hawkeye offense, which had 13 total possessions and managed just 74 yards in the eight possessions that didn’t result in points or a turnover.
Iowa was plagued all day by struggles across the offensive line. The Hawkeyes finished with only 54 rushing yards, despite getting 57 from Tyler Goodson (and 27 of those came on a single run). That is to say, everyone not named Tyler Goodson combined for negative three rushing yards on 14 carries while Goodson himself averaged only 3.2 yards per carry on 18 attempts.
The struggles in the running game were mitigated in part by offensive Brian Ferentz finally dialing up some deep passes and getting freshman Keagan Johnson onto the field in a more meaningful way. The result was one of the best performances we have seen out of Spencer Petras, who finished with 224 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 15 of 23 passing (65%) with his highest yards per attempt of his career (9.7).
The deeper passing game, however, came with a price as well. Those offensive line struggles reared their heads in the passing game with the Hawkeyes giving up three sacks and a pair of QB hurries.
And Petras’ solid performance came with a major hiccup as he nearly had a Rick-six moment. With the Hawkeyes on one of their best drives of the game following a 49-yard connection between Petras and Johnson, offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz dialed up an ill-advised screen pass on 1st and 10 from the CSU 14 yard line. As strange as the play call was, the decision by Petras to throw the pass despite a defender standing right in front of Tyrone Tracy was even more mind-melting.
Two steps forward, one leap back.
Phil Parker’s defense is still Phil Parker’s defense. But it too had some struggles on Saturday. The Hawkeyes held Colorado State to just 14 total points and both scored came from great field position for the Rams, but Iowa had its struggles along the way.
The Rams were perfectly happy to use an Iowa-style game plan, continuing to ram its running head into the brick wall of Iowa’s front four. That led to just a 2-yard per carry average on the day (it is worth noting CSU nearly hit the century mark on the ground with 95 yards rushing and had some success with QB Todd Centeio on the ground as he found paydirt from 15 yards out). But it also meant the Hawkeyes found themselves in a number of third and long situations ready to pin their ears back while the Rams calmly found their superstar tight end for a third down conversion.
CSU finished the day converting on 48% of their 23 third down tries, but as BoilerHawk pointed out in the game recap Saturday, they went into the half having converted on 9 of 13 third downs. The result was the first halftime deficit of the season for the Hawkeyes.
Alas, Parker is a magician and he had his defense ready in the second half. For the first time all season, the Hawkeyes didn’t come up with any points on the defensive side of the ball, but they again created a timely turnover as Jack Campbell scooped up a fumble on the CSU 6-yard line midway through the third quarter.
Tyrone Tracy found the endzone on the next play and the momentum had finally turned.
So what does it all mean for the rest of Iowa’s season?
There are sure to be Hawkeye fans who are sounding the alarm bells. They have been for three weeks prior. Iowa’s win over Colorado State was ugly. It was much closer than expected and against a team that frankly had no business being in a dog fight with the Hawkeyes well into the second half.
But it was still a win. That’s more than a number of other highly ranked teams found on Saturday.
The best seasons under Kirk Ferentz have come with a number of close calls. In 2002, the Hawkeyes struggled against Miami (OH) before losing to an Iowa State team they shouldn’t have. They nearly fell against Purdue. Then they went to the Orange Bowl and finished in the top-10. In 2003, they lost at Michigan State and Purdue and nearly fell to Wisconsin. In 2004, they were pummeled by Arizona State and escaped narrowly against Purdue and at Minnesota. Both those teams, too, finished in the top-10.
In 2009, Iowa needed a pair of blocked field goals to hold on against FCS Northern Iowa before going on to run the slate until that Ricky Stanzi naked bootleg. Oh, and they nearly lost to Arkansas State. They still won the Orange Bowl.
In 2015, the Hawkeyes nearly lost to Pitt in the non-conference and struggled mightily against Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota and Nebraska. They won 12 games for the first time in school history and made the first Rose Bowl in a generation.
This Iowa team, through four weeks, has already won as many games against ranked opponents as that 2015 squad. They laid the stereotypical Ferentz clunker in September and they now move on to the month of October at 4-0 with a top-5 ranking intact.
The defense struggled at times. The offense struggled at (more) times. But Iowa managed the chaos and came away with a win. That’s what the very best of Kirk Ferentz’s teams have done. Now it’s time to move onto the Big Ten season and see if this is one of those teams.