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The Morning After: King of the Hill

Kinnick at night is alive and well

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Trust Kinnick at Night to bring us yet another memorable football game. Going into this weekend I didn’t know what to think about this team. I knew we could not be the one that stunk up Beaver Stadium last week, but after enduring over two seasons of grinding, demoralizing, flat out not enjoyable football it was getting harder than ever to argue that Iowa football is anything but that anymore.

And yet I still was excited for last night’s game. It’s in prime time, against a hated Big Ten opponent, the annual black out game, and Iowa’s first appearance on NBC since 1986 and to me that network’s presentation is top notch. Add in the return of hated Iowa football villain Mark Dantonio to the sidelines and we’ve got something cooking here. If you had to put together a pantheon of antagonists to Iowa football, I’m sure many of you would have Michigan State and Mark Dantonio on the short list. I know I do.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Which made last night’s 26-16 victory just a bit more satisfying than it seems on the surface. The Iowa Hawkeyes used an advantageous defense and long awaited fireworks from Cooper DeJean to pull away from the Michigan State Spartans. It wasn’t a game that will silence any critics and question marks most definitely remain, but those questions are much easier to ponder after a win than a loss.

Things started out well enough as the Hawks made an obvious attempt to get the wide receivers more involved in the passing game. At first it seemed to be working. Cade McNamara hit Diante Vines on the first play of the game for 23 yards, and Nico Ragaini on the next play for 14. It was what Iowa fans have been clamoring for and it was working. Until it wasn’t. The offense settled for a field goal after consecutive incompletions and a drop. That would prove to be a theme on the night.

The first drive was encouraging enough, despite the field goal, but the moment all Hawkeye fans dreaded finally arrived on Iowa’s second drive when a scrambling McNamara took an awkward dive forward out of his own end zone and had to be helped off the field.

It was an eerie reprise of his injury at the Kids Day Scrimmage on August 12 even down to the way he fell. Cade would not return to the game, later appearing on the sidelines in crutches. In came Deacon Hill, the 6’3” 258 lb. mountain of a man from Santa Barbara.

It was a disjointed, frustrating debut for the sophomore. On the night he was 11 of 27 for 115, one touchdown and one interception on a poor throw. But his night was made worse by those aforementioned drops by his pass catchers. Hawkeye fans have bemoaned the absence of wide receiver involvement in play calling but last night did them no favors. This was their opportunity and they quite literally dropped the ball. We’ve at times scoffed at Brian and Kirk’s familiar refrain of “lack of execution” but this games was its crystallization. Vines had a handful of drops throughout the game. Kaleb Brown had one that could’ve moved the chains on third down. Erick All had his own troubles in the first quarter before a monster drive in the second for Iowa’s first touchdown of the game.

I was encouraged by Hill’s play and think he can work in this offense. It was great to see the bootleg return with a quarterback physically capable of running it, and that should open up much more options in the passing game. But Hill’s play is only half of the equation. The pass catchers need to hold up their end of the bargain.

Despite Hill’s guidance, the Hawkeyes trailed the Spartans 16-13 (a score I will forever hate and curse with my dying breath) but that’s when Kinnick at Night worked its magic. After tying the game in the fourth quarter the defense forced a Michigan State punt with 4:00 left in the game and...

...well, let’s just see it in action.

After a stellar night for the Michigan State punter, Coop finally got his break and took one to the house after breaking a tackle and scooting along the sideline. Kinnick came alive and the crowd could feel the tide turning. It felt like the Ragaini touchdown throw against Penn State in 2021. The defense was starting to take over and this score felt like all that was needed to get the win. You can just feel the surge of energy when Coop breaks through. I can’t watch it enough.

A Jay Higgins fumble recovery would set up a field goal to put the game out of reach and Jermari Harris’ late interception sealed the deal. This game could’ve gotten away from the Hawkeyes. The offense wasn’t moving and the defense was having trouble keeping the Spartans outside field goal range. But as has become a hallmark of Iowa football they took advantage of mistakes and won on the margins.

For the foreseeable future this will be Deacon Hill’s team. He played better than his stats will show, and we’ve again seen the defense come up with game winning plays when we needed it to. Hill will get more reps with the first team which will go a long way in establishing a rhythm and rapport, and while you never want to lose a starting quarterback Hill’s health and power opens up possibilities that weren’t there with a hobbled McNamara.

Iowa moves to 4-1 on the back of an enormous quarterback and Coop’s special teams heroics. Kinnick at Night, you magnificent bastard.