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View From The Cheap Seats: Success

Just wanna stay right here on the sunny side of the street...

Illinois v Iowa Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

Around this time every year I get the urge to listen to “Fairytale of New York” by The Pogues, a band that never really had a lot of success in the states. It’s a song that you’ve all likely heard (even if you couldn’t name the band), and it is without a doubt my favorite “Christmas Song”. Listening to Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl recount Christmases shared by two naive, heroin-addicted, lovers in the big city has little to do with Iowa football, but I inevitably end up listening to the rest of The Pogues catalog as well, including another tune called “Sunny Side of the Street” from the album Hell’s Ditch. As I sat down to write this column, it was this song that came to mind, because it’s message is centered around finding the positive in a world full of, well, let’s just say negativity (Shane MacGowan’s lyrics are far more explicit).

For most of this season this column has entertained a fair amount of negativity, but as we head into Thanksgiving I’m feeling the need to focus on the positives (if only for my own sanity), so if you’re looking for negativity, you’re not going to find much this week (I’ll get to that in my Festivus column). Today I’m choosing to walk on the sunny side of the street.

354 days ago the Iowa fanbase received what, at the time, felt like the best news we’d had in an incredibly long time: Cade McNamara was leaving Michigan to become the quarterback for the Iowa Hawkeyes. 12 days later we learned that he was bringing his roommate, and fellow Wolverine captain, Erick All with him. As the offseason progressed, we received more good news with the announcements of transfers that would bring Nick Jackson, Seth Anderson, Kaleb Brown, and others, but it all started with Cade and the dream of a new look Iowa offense that would, finally, silence the critics and bring the final B1G West crown to Iowa City. 351 days after Cade’s announcement, the Iowa Hawkeyes achieved that dream, though I think we can all say that they did not get there by taking the road any of us expected.

Iowa’s 15-13 victory over Illinois on Saturday gave Iowa its 2nd B1G West championship in 3 years and a date in Indianapolis against an opponent that will, almost assuredly, be ranked in the Top 3 come December 10th. That may not seem like much of a prize (especially in a year where the B1G West may have only 3 bowl eligible teams), but from where I sit, this season may be Kirk Ferentz’s crowning achievement. Coaching a team with an Offense ranked near the bottom in every statistical category to a 9 (or 10, or 11) win season isn’t something that happens very often (just ask Lincoln Riley). Keeping a team together through the constant stream of adversity this team has faced is more than just admirable, it is truly exceptional and while I, and many others, have routinely criticized his decision-making, it’s hard to argue that this season has been a success. Yes, there was a terrible loss to Penn State, and an even worse loss to Minnesota (one which most of us will never let go), but the fact that this team has been in a position to win all but 1 game this season truly beggars belief.

I’m still not sure how this team has managed to win 9 games while being a national laughing-stock on one side of the ball, losing it’s 4 best players to injury (and a 5th thanks to a terrible NCAA ruling), and scoring a grant total of 230 points. But here we are, atop the B1G West in it’s final incarnation and I’ve got to say, the view ain’t terrible (even if the trip to the top was less than enjoyable).

The Iowa Offense

We all know that offense is not this team’s strong suit, but there are certainly performances to celebrate across the 11 games we’ve seen thus far. We saw great performances from Luke Lachey and Erick All in their limited time before being injured and some great catches (even if there weren’t many) by an improving WR corps, but one room has been solid all season, the RB room. While there, likely, won’t be any post-season accolades for any of the 7 RBs that have notched a carry this year, 5 of them have managed to punch in at least one TD, and the three-headed monster of Kaleb Johnson, LeShon Williams, and Jaziun Patterson have put this offense on their backs more than once. All three of Iowa’s main RBs have runs of 50 plus on the year, and while KJ2’s sophomore season has not been what we were hoping for (high ankle sprains are a bitch), he has shown flashes of what we saw last year. LeShon Williams has upped his game significantly since 2022 and has become this team’s workhorse, and Jaziun Patterson can almost always be relied upon to hit the hole like a rocket and pick up the tough yards.

In a season where the focus has been on Iowa’s poor passing offense, the RB room has produced 10 TDs on the ground and 1 through the air. It’s not a stat line that sets any records, but they’ve gotten the job done when they needed to and kept this Iowa team in games that they could easily have lost. We should all be very thankful for Ladell Betts.

LW4 to the house against Wisconsin:

KJ2 to the house against OMHR:

JP9 against ISU:

We should also be thankful for Abdul Hodge and the Iowa TE room. A season that started with one of the best TE tandems in the country (not to mention 14 personnel groupings – nothing says “Iowa football” like 4 TEs on the field at the same time) could have gone downhill fast after losing Luke Lachey and Erick All to season-ending injuries, but no, TEU kept rolling with rising star Addison Ostrenga, 6th year senior Steven Stillianos, and Zach Ortwerth all delivering clutch receptions. Whether it was McNamara or Hill, the TEs have kept the Iowa passing offense from going completely under, not to mention routinely delivering key blocks to spring RBs for big gains.

Deacon to All against OMHR:

Deacon to Ortwerth against Rutgers:

Deacon to Ostrenga against NW:

Last but not least, and while it took longer than it should have, we should all be very thankful that Kaleb Brown has finally begun his inevitable rise to the top of the Iowa depth chart. After going without a catch until Iowa’s tilt in Chicago with NW (where his 23 yard grab set up the winning field goal), he’s snagged 10 catches for 98 yards and a touchdown the last two weeks. His is the kind of talent that we don’t see very often in Iowa City, and we’ve got at least 1 more season to see what the highest rated recruit ever to play WR at Iowa can do.

KB3 TD against Rutgers:

KB3 getting the ball in space:

The Iowa Defense

What can I say about this year’s defense that hasn’t already been said (probably nothing tbh, but I’ve got column inches to fill). Phil Parker may have outdone himself with this group. After losing Jack Campbell, Seth Benson, John Waggoner, Lukas Van Ness, Riley Moss, and Kaevon Merriwether from a defense that finished 2nd in total defense, 2nd in scoring defense, and 1st in YPP average, pretty much everyone expected this defense to take a step back. Instead, this team has exceeded expectations at nearly every turn.

Through week 11 Iowa’s defense has the following stats:

  • 12.4 ppg (down almost a full point from 2022, #3 in the nation)
  • 281.4 ypg (up by about 10 yards from 2022, #7 in the nation)
  • 4.0 ypp (up .1 ypp from 2022, #2 in the nation)
  • 54.8% completion rate (down 3.8% from 2022, #9 in the nation)
  • 3.1 ypc (up from 2.8 ypc in 2022, #13 in the nation)
  • 2 rushing TDs allowed (#1 in the nation)
  • 12 total TDs allowed (#3 in the nation)
  • 3 safeties (#1 in the nation)

Those are some damn impressive numbers, especially when you consider that this Iowa defense is averaging nearly 70 snaps per game (which has come down significantly over the last two games with the offense finally being able to sustain some drives) and has met or exceeded that average in 8 of 11 contests. We’ve seen impressive play from linemen, linebackers and DBs, but four players have truly set the tone for this defense game in and game out: Sebastian Castro, Cooper DeJean, Jay Higgins, and Joe Evans:

Sebastian Castro

Whether he’s fighting through two blockers to make a TFL, grabbing a pick six, or flying in to keep an opposing RB from getting the corner, #29 has done just about everything for this defense all season.

Cooper DeJean

The beating heart of the Iowa Hawkeyes, and the first Iowa player to even be mentioned as a Heisman candidate in quite a while, the junior from Obebolt (fingers crossed we get to talk about him as a Senior from Odebolt) had everyone on the edge of their seat on every opposing team punt and just about any time a ball was thrown his way. While he wasn’t able to add to his career Pick-Six total this year, he gave us all some great memories, and he will be more than missed if he does decide to enter the draft this spring (and who could blame him if he does):

Jay Higgins

I don’t think anyone expected Jay Higgins to step into Jack Campbell’s shoes and lead the B1G in tackles, not to mention being #2 in the nation with 133 tackles through 11 games. Higgins has already surpassed the reigning Butkus Award winner’s tackle total from last season with 3 games left to play. Higgins waited his turn and it has paid significant dividends for this team and for his future. I can only hope that he will be back for 2024.

Joe Evans

Joe Evans is the quintessential Iowa football story. Iowa native, an unranked former QB/LB for Ames High who walked on as a Linebacker and switched to Defensive End because there just wasn’t anyone else who has now amassed 126 tackles (31 TFLs) and 24 sacks in his career. He may have come to Iowa unsung, but he’s leaving as a hero.

No other single play, or series, this year sums up the Iowa defense better than this stand against NW.

Special Teams

We Iowa fans have grown used to outstanding play from our Special Teams (and how could we not) and while this year has seen some dips, we’ve had outstanding plays on kickoffs, punts, and punt returns. Yes, Punting is Winning, but having elite special teams is not something you luck into. We may have had the privilege of seeing the best punter in our lifetime and the most electric punt returner since Tim Dwight in the late 90’s. We’re all thankful for LeVar Woods and his ability to find amazing specialist talent, as well as being thankful that (unlike many HCs) Kirk Ferentz places an awful lot of emphasis on strong special teams. It’s not often you see defensive starters on kick and punt coverage, but this is Iowa, and at Iowa it’s more than an expectation, it’s a requirement.

Anterio Thompson punt block:

CDJ punt return for TD:

Tory Taylor punt downed at the 1:

It’s probably not hard to believe that I had another 30 clips that could have gone in this piece and, to be honest, there are a lot of other players who deserve writeups like I’ve given to the players above. I could spend days compiling clips of Yahyah Black, Aaron Graves, Ethan Hurkett, Xavier Nwankpa, Quinn Schulte, Max Llewellyn, Deontae Craig, Logan Lee, Nick Jackson, Rusty Feth, Diante Vines, Hayden Large, Kamari Moulton, Connor Colby, Tyler Elsbury and many others, but there’re only so many hours in the day, and only so many clips to choose from when you don’t have easy access to actual game tape.

As we near the end of yet another Iowa football season, there is a lot to be happy about, and an awful lot of improvement to expect for next year, but for this week let’s all just take some time and appreciate another season that an awful lot of college football fans would be ecstatic about. There’ll be plenty of time to complain come December 3rd.

To close, I want to thank all of you for reading this column week in and week out. Writing a weekly column is a daunting task that you can’t fully understand until you’ve done it. I’m not a journalist, I’m not a statistician, I’m not even really a football guy, I’m just an Iowa Football fan. I’ve been a BHGP reader for as long as I can remember, and I don’t think I’d ever have imagined that I’d have a byline here. I cannot express how thankful I am to have found a group of writers as committed as the BHGP staff (special thanks to JPinIC for giving me a shot) and a group of readers as dedicated as Iowa fans.

As always, GO HAWKS!!!