IOWA CITY, Iowa – Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz lamented his team’s approach last week. It was not how he wanted his Hawkeyes to play.
He was talking about the offensive breakdown that saw them throw 51 passes and run the ball just 23 times in a 21-20 loss against Northwestern. But the defensive allowed long scoring drives and couldn’t get off the field on third down. Not much looked like Iowa Football when it’s been successful.
The identity returned on Saturday in a 49-7 drubbing of visiting Michigan State. The Hawkeyes utilized a balanced, less-predictable offense that didn’t turn over the ball, an aggressive, physical defense and productive, opportunistic special teams.
It was vintage Iowa Football.
The Hawkeyes were discombobulated in their 0-2 start. Turnovers and penalties tripped them up in a Week 1 setback at Purdue. Last week, they were out-coached by Pat Fitzgerald and his staff in addition to making too many mistakes.
Even in an unusual year impacted by a pandemic, outsiders wondered if one of the most consistently successful Big Ten programs would recover from the sluggish start. They questioned new starting quarterback Spencer Petras. They considered the possibility that the staff lost the locker room after a tumultuous offseason that included findings of racial bias by coaches towards players.
Iowa erased doubts for at least a week with Saturday’s well-rounded performance. Unlike last week when it relinquished a 17-0, first-quarter advantage, it started fast and never let up, leading 35-0 at halftime.
It received the game’s opening kickoff and then drove 75 yards down the field for a touchdown. The march included three pass completions and five runs, including a reverse by receiver Charlie Jones. No wideouts were involved in the running game a week ago.
The Hawkeyes hit Michigan State, which was coming off a win at rival Michigan last week, with play calls that departed from tendency. They ran out of spread formations, and played their top two tailbacks, Tyler Goodson and Mekhi Sargent, at the same time. One of the worst teams in the conference at converting on third down cashed in on its first three attempts.
The offense was missing one of its top player-makers in the suspended Ihmir Smith-Marsette and two starting offensive linemen – Coy Cronk and Kyler Schott. That it put together its best performance of the season spoke to how together and engaged that unit remained through adversity.
Petras still lacked touch on his passes at times and must work that out, but he looked much more relaxed than he has this season. Some of that could be attributed to playing with a big lead, but that was the case last week when it didn’t end well. Saturday, he wasn’t asked to carry the load but instead contribute to the cause, finishing with 15 completions for 167 yards and a touchdown on 15 attempts.
Defensively, Iowa found a consistent pass rush and suffocated MSU quarterback Rocky Lombardi and an attack that had racked up more than 300 yards passing in each of the first two contests. That pressure put the secondary in position to make plays, which included a Riley Moss Pick-6 that extended the lead to 35-0.
Wrapping a bow on the complementary football that defines success for the Black and Gold was the special teams’ phase. Freshman punter Tory Taylor built on his bid for all-conference laurels with five of seven kicks downed inside the opponent 20. Return man Charlie Jones brought back five punts for 105 yards, including a 54-yard touchdown.
Just like the first two weeks didn’t spell disaster, Saturday doesn’t guarantee that the Hawkeyes have figured everything out and are about to roll everyone else on the schedule. Expect challenging games the next two weekends at Minnesota and Penn State.
Any margin for error in terms of winning the West Division went out the window with the 0-2 start. Northwestern’s win against Nebraska Saturday moved it to 3-0. Purdue and Wisconsin also finished this weekend unbeaten.
But at least Iowa has a chance now, something that wouldn’t have been the case had it lost Saturday. It learned what it takes to win, which was the same way it had for years. It reclaimed its identity, and that’s good news around here.