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The Morning After: The Kaleb Johnson Game

Look at me, I’m the David Bell now.

Syndication: Journal-Courier Clay Maxfield/for Journal and Courier / USA TODAY NETWORK

In the Jeff Brohm era at Purdue, the recipe for success against Iowa has been to find what works and go back to it over and over and over again. In 2020, receiver David Bell lit up the scoreboard with three touchdowns and 121 yards. Last year, against another elite Iowa defense, the Boilers again attacked with Bell. Eleven catches and 240 yards later, Iowa’s unbeaten streak had ended along with their brief time ranked #2 in the country. This year, the threat of Bell was gone, but with two former Hawkeye receivers on the roster, Iowa fans were dreading who would be the next Purdue receiver to haunt their dreams for the next 365 days.

Unfortunately for Brohm, this year Iowa took a page out of his playbook.

On a wet and windy Saturday afternoon, the Iowa Hawkeyes defeated the Purdue Boilermakers 24-3, avenging those two straight losses and two transfers in one swoop. While last week’s Northwestern win may have been the team’s most productive win, this week’s was their most complete and against a better opponent at that. Iowa’s defense suffocated Aidan O’Connell as the game went on, Tory Taylor drilled punts into strong headwinds, and the offense found its bell cow back.

This was the Kaleb Johnson game.

The freshman running back from Hamilton, OH cemented himself as the team’s #1 ball carrier in this game, and proved to be Iowa’s answer to Purdue’s recent tendency. With the offensive line playing well, Iowa leaned on Johnson to keep on schedule and in short yardage situations whenever possible. Johnson did his part, oftentimes picking up chunks of yards using a mix of power and elusiveness that Purdue couldn’t figure out.

Johnson has that downhill quality that has been missing from recent running backs like Tyler Goodson and Akrum Wadley. No disrespect to those guys at all, they both did fantastic things in the black and gold. But both had a tendency to dance just a bit too much rather than heading north to south. But lest you think that’s all Kaleb brought to the game today, think again. Even when met behind the line, Johnson displayed a knack for escaping the pressure and finding the open lane to pick up positive yards. His 75 yard touchdown run right after halftime showed just how smoothly he could flow through defenders, turn on the speed, and leave the defense in the dust.

By the end of the game, Johnson had gained 200 yards on 22 carries. He was Iowa’s first 200-yard rusher since 2015. Before this game, I don’t think anyone expected such a performance from an individual back, and this offensive unit as a whole. Johnson’s success was set up by Iowa’s early passing success, with Sam LaPorta and Nico Ragaini both having a big first half and scoring touchdowns. Having a real passing threat loosened the pressure on the running game and the offensive line and Johnson took advantage again and again.

Syndication: Journal-Courier Noe Padilla/Journal and Courier / USA TODAY NETWORK

As much success as Iowa had repeatedly leaning on a hot player, Purdue couldn’t do the same. O’Connell seemed determined to turn Charlie Jones into the new Receiver of Doom for the Iowa defense, but try as he might he couldn’t replicate the successes of years past. Jones’ superb route running allowed him to pick up a couple of good gains, but the home run shot never materialized. He did end the game with 104 yards receiving, and while some of that success was down to those isolated big gains, it was also the result of O’Connell repeatedly going to him despite his inability to break out. Purdue couldn’t sustain enough drives to counter Iowa’s punches.

The Hawkeye defense came up with turnovers or sacks at just the right moments to stymie any momentum the Boilers started to pick up. With Purdue knocking on the door of the end zone on 3rd and Goal, and undoubtedly in four down mode, Lukas Van Ness put the kibosh on any hopes of a touchdown, chasing down and then throwing down O’Connell for one of Iowa’s three sacks on the day.

This is on top of interceptions by Kaevon Merriweather and Seth Benson and three fourth down stops to force turnovers on downs. After being torched by Purdue’s offense in recent years, this was the Iowa defense emphatically refusing to let it happen again, while on the other side of the ball Iowa’s offense was determined not to let last week be a fluke.

This was really the best way Iowa could have won this game. This wasn’t a squeak out a victory by a defensive stand or last second field goal. Iowa was able to establish its own dominant offensive presence through the passing game and Johnson’s running while the defense played locked in for sixty minutes and kept Purdue out of the end zone for the first time since 2013. It was some measure of catharsis for the Hawkeyes, and an exorcism of demons both old and new.