Just when you think you have all the answers... Iowa football changes the question. Two weeks after a frustrating, not-really-as-close-as-the-score-said 38-31 loss to Maryland and after a week full of dispiriting news about injuries (LeShun Daniels, Jr.), suspensions (Reggie Spearman), and departures (Derrick Willies), all Iowa did was demolish Northwestern, 48-7. Just like we all expected, right? Halloween might have been yesterday, but there was plenty of trick-or-treating on display in Kinnick Stadium today -- and Iowa handed out a lot of treats to a fanbase starving for reasons to cheer.
This was Iowa's most complete performance of the season by far, with excellent performances on offense and defense and some big highlights on special teams. It was probably Iowa's best overall performance since the epic thrashing that Iowa handed to Western Michigan a season ago, a game that also featured dominance in all three phases. There was very little to complain about today beyond a bad punt or two and a bobble on another snap that set Northwestern's offense up inside the Iowa 20-yard line.
The game began with a 54-yard kickoff return from Jonathan Parker, a return made even better by the 15-yard personal foul penalty that was tacked onto the end of it. (Although that came with a cost -- Parker appeared to get banged up on the return and saw very little action the rest of the day.) That set Iowa up at the Northwestern 31-yard line and they wasted no time in getting into the end zone: one short completion to Tevaun Smith and three Mark Weisman runs later and Iowa was up 7-0 before two minutes had even elapsed.
On the ensuing drive, Northwestern ran for 15 yards on the first play, which was an ominous sign after the run defense struggles we saw against Indiana and Maryland in Iowa's last two games. Thankfully, it was also an aberration. The defense was absolutely dialed in today and after that run Northwestern went sack (Louis Trinca-Pasat), incomplete pass (deflected by Drew Ott), incomplete pass, punt.
Iowa didn't let up after getting the ball back, gobbling up 65 yards through the air on back-to-back passes to Tevaun Smith and Matt VandeBerg. The latter pass was actually a flea flicker (IT LIVES!) from Rudock to VandeBerg; it wasn't even particularly well-executed and it still went for 42 yards. The Iowa drive stalled out after those big gains and Iowa had to settle for a field goal attempt. Earlier in the season that would have been cause for serious alarm, but Marshall Koehn has grown into the role nicely and he boomed a 48-yard field goal through for a 10-0 Iowa lead.
Northwestern went three and out on the next drive (aided by a huge tackle-for-loss by Carl Davis on an attempted jet sweep), but there was no let-up from the Iowa offense. They covered 60 yards in five plays, most coming on a 43-yard reception to Kevonte Martin-Manley and then a 14-yard Mark Weisman touchdown run. 17-0 Iowa and the game wasn't even ten minutes old.
Northwestern got the ball and went three and out AGAIN (aided by another Louis Trinca-Pasat sack on third down) and that's when the game went from "fun" to "sublime," thanks to The Ben Niemann Show.
That big play by Iowa's true freshman linebacker made it 24-0 and the rout was truly on. (Although if we'd known that all we needed to do to get Iowa to block a punt again was write about it, we would have done so a long time ago!)
Northwestern immediately got the ball back, but their offense continued to be inept and went three and out. What followed was probably the only bad Iowa possession of the day: a three and out followed by a bad snap that led to a botched punt. Northwestern took over at the Iowa 18-yard line and punched the ball in for a touchdown after four plays. That cut Iowa's lead to 24-7 with three quarters to go and you could be forgiven for getting a little bit nervous. After all, Iowa had used a red-hot offensive start to open up a 28-7 lead against Indiana before Tevin Coleman made that game more interesting than it should have been and it was just two weeks ago that Iowa blew a 14-0 lead at Maryland. Fast starts were not necessarily a portent of great success for Iowa.
Luckily, that was anything but an issue today. Iowa answered Northwestern's touchdown with a 12-play, 75 yard drive of their own that ended with a gorgeous 31-yard touchdown pass from Jake Rudock to Tevaun Smith. THe teams traded punts on drives after that before a Northwestern fumble gave Iowa the ball at the Northwestern 34-yard line with under two minutes to go. Three runs later, Mark Weisman was in the end zone (again), the score was 38-7 Iowa, and the game was over as a competitive contest. The only questions remaining were how lopsided the score would get and how much run the back-ups would get.
A few thoughts:
* Speaking of Halloween...
Iowa went as Oregon for Halloween. pic.twitter.com/uAP68a3xT5
— ESPNU (@ESPNU) November 1, 2014
* Mark Weisman had another mansome performance, rumbling for 94 yards and 3 touchdowns on 20 carries. He was his usual hard-pounding self and it's a great relief to see him hitting top form in November, rather than battling a series of nagging injuries. But the highlight of the day, running game-wise, might have been Akrum Wadley. Wadley, nominally the sixth-string running back on Iowa's depth chart (behind Weisman, Damon Bullock, Jordan Canzeri, LeShun Daniels, Jr., and Jonathan Parker), became the first Iowa running back to crack 100 rushing yards in a game, scooting for 106 yards and a touchdown. Granted, several of those yards came in the second half (which was effectively all garbage time), but Wadley showed nice wiggle, a good burst of speed, and a pretty solid ability to read blocks and hit holes. With Daniels out for the season, Canzeri felled for the time being by a nagging ankle injury, and Parker seemingly dinged up on the game-opening kickoff, Iowa was looking a bit thin at running back, but Wadley had one heck of a debut. Here's hoping we see a bit more of him in the season's closing stretch.
* As gratifying as it was to see the run game finally get on track (and 46 carries for 221 yards and 4 touchdowns is most certainly "on track"), it was also reassuring to see the passing game click for Iowa, too. Rudock had probably his finest performance of the season: 12/19, 239 yards, 1 TD/0 INT, a whopping 12.6 yards per pass attempt. This looked like the Rudock that Ferentz has always raved about (and that we've seen sporadically on the field): calm, accurate, and decisive. And maybe the best part of his performance was the nature of the passes: lots of vertical passes, pushing the ball downfield. Those 239 yards didn't include a lot of short passes with big runs after the catch -- most of them covered several yards in the air before being caught. And no slight on Iowa's running backs and tight ends (who are fine pass-catchers and a valuable part of the passing game), but it was a tremendous relief to see them combine for two receptions, while the wide receivers (particularly Smith, Martin-Manley, and VandeBerg) were targeted early and often and made several big catches. We've spilled plenty of digital ink about Iowa's inability to get the ball in the hands of its playmakers on offense (one of the most damning stats from the loss to Maryland was that no receiver had a catch until the third quarter), so it was extremely gratifying to see them so involved and productive today.
* The defense came up big today as well and, frankly, they looked like a unit that was itching to prove itself. The run defense got lit up by Tevin Coleman and then gave up 200+ to a mediocre Maryland rushing attack, but they looked determined to not let that happen again today. Northwestern ended up with over 100 yards rushing (105), but it took 43 carries (a dismal 2.4 yards per carry average) to get there. The pass defense was even better, holding Siemian and his replacement, back-up Zack Oliver to a miserable 9/24 for 75 yards (a wretched 2.6 yards per pass attempt).
The defense's strong play started up front. Louis Trinca-Pasat was the headliner with three first half sacks (a career-high), but all four of Iowa's starters had at least one tackle for loss and they combined for six tackles for loss, four sacks, and innumerable pressures. They made life miserable for Siemian and the rest of the Northwestern backfield. Outside of the hosses up front, the best players on Iowa's defense today might have been the safeties. Johnny Lowdermilk has taken a lot of grief, but he put in a very good performance today (12 tackles, 1 forced fumble, 1 pass break-up) and Jordan Lomax also had a solid day (7 tackles, 1 pass break-up).
* Iowa's special teams contributed the only things really worth griping about today, between the bad snap and botched punt attempt that set up Northwestern's only score of the day and an unimpressive 26-yard punt by Connor Kornbrath (though he also had a 48-yard punt on his other attempt), but on balance I think you'd have to give a good grade to the special teams today, too. Parker's big kick return gave Iowa excellent field position to start the game and seemed to jumpstart the entire team. Koehn's 48-yard field goal kept things rolling nicely for Iowa and extended the lead to 10-0. And Niemann's blocked punt --
Again, let's just stop and rejoice that IOWA BLOCKED A PUNT TODAY
-- was a huge, heady play that broke the game wide open and turned it into an utter rout. There are certainly things for the special teams units to work on and we need to see more consistency from them, but today... today was a good day. For them and for everyone wearing black and gold.
This was a good win. Northwestern might not be particularly great this year (and they certainly weren't any good today), but they were good enough to beat Wisconsin, stomp Penn State, and give Nebraska fits for a half -- they're not an outright bad team, by any means. And Iowa stomped them into the ground, basically from the first whistle. Considering what a nuisance they'e been for Iowa over the last decade, that was especially gratifying.
There's plenty of work to do this season (although having bowl eligibility in the bag with four games to go is a relief), but there's a lot of to be optimistic about after a comprehensive victory like this. Bring on the Gophers.