The Hawkeyes were hoping to turn the page on a tumultuous offseason Saturday at Purdue. Instead, the Boilermakers authored another forgettable chapter in what has been a miserable story this year for Iowa Football.
The good news on which to hang your hat as a Hawkeye fan was that your squad played with effort. The student-athletes supported each other and the coaches appeared to be connected with them. That wasn’t a given after we learned this summer that there was racial bias in the program.
The bad news was Iowa looked nothing like itself in a 24-20 loss. They committed 10 penalties for 100 yards, fumbled the ball away twice in enemy territory and allowed Purdue to run the ball down its throat. That’s the opposite of what’s made the Hawkeyes one of the most consistently good teams in the Big Ten.
The coaches and players said throughout the last several months that the trials and tribulations experienced brought them closer. They showed that on Saturday, cheering each other on and consoling during adverse moments. Had they not it would have been cause for major concern.
That can’t be faked. And that’s not to say the Hawkeyes have fixed everything that two reviews showed was Black student-athletes being treated unfairly compared to Whites. It meant there’s been tangible progress.
We heard about it, but couldn’t see it with the team isolated like the rest of us by the COVID-19 pandemic. The actions spoke louder than words.
Iowa now must take that camaraderie and combine it with playing good football. Make no mistake, Saturday’s loss is bad. The margin of error for winning the West Division decreases quite a bit.
The Boilermakers were coming off a 4-8 season. They were missing their head coach, Jeff Brohm, who was quarantined with the coronavirus. Star receiver Rondale Moore sat out for reasons unknown. Starting running back King Doerue was sidelined with a hamstring injury.
The Hawkeyes didn’t fall to a perceived title contender. They tripped up against a team they should beat if they want to wrestle away Wisconsin’s stranglehold on the West. The Badgers thumped Illinois Friday night.
Iowa’s season is by no means dead. It must be a lot better if it wants to stay alive, however. That begins next week when it plays host to its old nemesis, Northwestern.
It starts with consistency on offense. Outside of quarterback Spencer Petras, the unit oozes with experience. That should result in more than the three points in produced in Saturday’s second half.
The defense looked good at times but lacked a consistent pass rush and broke down in key moments. Purdue receiver David Bell caught 13 passes against it for a second in a row, going for 121 yards and three touchdowns Saturday. In two games against the Hawkeyes, he has 26 receptions for 318 yards and four scores.
Moore was missing. Bell excelled against it last season. Yet, Iowa still couldn’t contain him.
While Bell was running wild in the secondary, running back Zander Horvath was smashing through the line. He finished with 21 carries for 129 yards, an average of 6.1 a tote.
Offensively, the Hawkeyes posted an impressive 460 yards. The penalties, turnovers and 4 of 13 performance on third down did them in, however.
“Ball security is emphasized daily,” said running back Tyler Goodson, who lost a fumble in the first half. “It’s been awhile since last August, but that’s no excuse. We’re just going to go into next week, work on the fundamentals of ball security again and just keep working at it until it gets better throughout the season.”
Iowa did leave West Lafayette with positives on which to build.
It established a running game, the most encouraging development in this game. It averaged 3.9 yards a carry last season. The three-headed monster of Goodson, Mekhi Sargent and Ivory Kelly-Martin combined for 177 yards on 31 carries with a touchdown. It set up opponents moving forward for the play-action passes from a dangerous aerial attack.
Freshman punter Tory Taylor turned out to be a revelation in witnessing and being a part of his first ever American football game. The 23-year-old Australian boomed six kicks for 265 yards (44.2) with three of them traveling at least 50 yards and two being downed inside the opponent 20.
One has to hope a 10-month layoff from playing an opponent impacted the Hawkeyes. Granted some of the faces changed, but they looked nothing like the outfit that thumped USC in December’s Holiday Bowl.
“Every team is in the same situation,” linebacker Nick Niemann said. “It’s who had better preparation and who is going to go out there and compete and find a way to win. They did that. We give credit to them but it’s frustrating, sad and upsetting. All we can do it try to bounce back and go win next week.”
Purdue took a page from the Hawkeye playbook in grinding out a win. That stung for a team that held together during the toughest of times.
The Hawkeyes showed up at Saturday’s game wearing shirts with their jersey numbers and “Together” printed on them. Their helmets displayed social justice messages. They showed progress in that area, now they need to find it in the fundamentals of football.