Iowa and the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad November

I can’t recall the last time I walked out of Kinnick Stadium as angry as I was last Saturday.

Other than blocking, catching, tackling, catching punts, kicking punts or covering wide receivers, I guess a few Hawkeye players did things right against Purdue. To find out for sure, I’d have to re-watch that fiasco of failed football, however, and that ain’t happening.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised.

After all, it’s a Kirk Ferentz-coached Iowa season, which means any unexpected positive result must be balanced out by at least one head-scratching, ridiculous loss.

Last year we got the thrill of beating Michigan after being uncompetitive against Penn State and losing to an FCS school.

This year we got six glorious days to bask in a historic beat down of long-time nemesis Ohio State, only to be greeted with two weeks in a row of absolutely atrocious, uncompetitive football.

It’s one thing to be uncompetitive against the undefeated Wisconsin Badgers, who have had Iowa’s number for some time now. But it is beyond inexcusable to get punked by a 4-win Purdue team at home, on senior day, even if they are better than past Boilermaker squads.

A rare decent run against Purdue. Photo courtesy Hawkeye Report.

You knew it was going to be one of “those games” as soon as Iowa’s special teams unit idiotically roughed the Purdue punter after the defense forced a three-and-out, leading directly to Purdue’s first touchdown. The Boilers would briefly relinquish that lead, but the pattern was set. A bevy of boneheaded Hawkeye miscues later sent Hawkeye fans fleeing for the Kinnick exits early.

I suppose one silver lining is Iowa players have continued to play hard and show heart. That they do so while piling one mistake upon another, continuing to make basic errors like misidentifying who to block or who to cover and whether or not to catch a punt is, well . . . I guess it’s better than being stupid AND not trying.

So they’ve got that going for them, anyway.

As for the future of the Ferentz coaching regime – and by regime I mean the presumed fait accompli of a smooth transition from father to son at some point in the near-to-mid-future – I’m not sure that the 2017 November meltdown might not actually be a good thing.

Bear with me for a minute, here.

Let’s say Iowa had managed a very manageable comeback over mediocre Purdue. And then went on to smack around a demoralized Nebraska team in Lincoln. The Hawkeyes would be sitting at 8-4 and heading to a nice bowl, making the abject failure to move the ball in Madison little more than a nasty memory.

Instead, a second week of abject failure should force this staff to take a long, hard look at the current direction of the program, particularly its moribund and molasses-like offense. Counting recent bowl losses, Iowa will now have lost five or more games in seven of its last eight seasons. In addition, it’s likely that six of those eight seasons will see Iowa finish at fourth or lower in a seven team division.

Now, Iowa has finished over .500, gone to quite a few bowls and notched some huge wins over that period as well. And no one can diminish the achievement of finishing a regular season undefeated like the Hawks did in 2015.

But being “pretty good” is not good enough. I’ve never been and never will be a “look at the size of the paycheck” guy. The elder Ferentz has earned his contract through uncanny timing of stellar seasons. But being slightly worse than Bo Pelini certainly doesn’t inspire the confidence to say one family should rule Iowa football in perpetuity.

This is why I actually think this meltdown might be a good thing. It damn well better light a fire under everyone in the football facility hoping to keep that much-lauded “Iowa coaching continuity” thing going.

Because right now the natives are restless and angry. Those are at least active emotions.

The next step is apathy, which leads to empty seats, which leads to dwindling coffers, which apparently is the only thing that gets Gary Barta’s attention.

Iowa fans aren’t particularly fickle. And they will forgive this no-good November if their beloved Hawkeyes legitimately compete for a West Division title in 2018.

But if they don’t……..

Badger beat down: Why can’t Iowa football have nice things?

It was Bill, sitting next to me in a chilly but raucous Camp Randall full of beer-fueled and neck-bearded Badger fans, who pointed out the weird parallel.

Like a similarly cold November night seven years ago in Minneapolis, it was only the guy wearing #15 in black and gold who appeared to have any clue about how to play football or bothered to show up for a big road game.

For those that don’t remember, that was the night DJK returned a kickoff 88 yards for a touchdown and added a receiving touchdown in a dispiriting 27-24 loss to a 2-9 Minnesota team where no one else really did much of anything.

This past Saturday it was Josh Jackson, also sporting 15, who continued his amazing November by snagging two pick-sixes and forcing a fumble on his way to a second consecutive Big 10 Defensive Player of the Week award.

Normally, this would be cause for great celebration. But considering the rest of the team played like 21 of the worst players in the conference on the same night, it’s kind of hard to get real excited.

Like in 2010, Iowa was coming off a very emotional game against Ohio State.

But unlike 2010, Iowa hadn’t just lost a heartbreaker to a perennial tormenter. Instead, it had rolled what many believe is one of the most talented teams in the country, setting up the exciting prospect of a late autumn surge into relevancy and the rankings.

Psssssssssssssssssssshhhhhhhhhhhhh. That’s the sound of the black and gold balloon deflating.

I’m not sure why it’s the Iowa fan’s lot in life, but apparently we are destined to not have nice things. Perhaps it is considered untoward or putting on airs in Iowa City to build on a good thing and make it great. Perhaps Iowa football is simply allergic to success. Whatever it is, it sucks.

It’s also maddeningly repetitive.

Earlier this season Iowa followed up a 45-16 dismantling of Illinois with its worst (until Madison) outing of the season in a putrid overtime loss to Northwestern. Last year, after blitzkrieging Iowa State 42-3, the Hawks stumbled and bumbled to a loss against FCS foe North Dakota State. Remember hammering the Wildcats 48-7 in 2014 and then immediately following that up with a 51-14 drubbing at the hands of Minnesota?

The only thing Iowa is consistent at is wild swings of inconsistency.

Of course there will be the usual dissections and disgruntlement of the Hawkeye coaches’ game plan for the Badger game. Some will say the offense should have passed more. Or ran to the outside. Or had better play calling in general.

I say poppycock.

Sitting in row 42 at about the 30, it was painfully, embarrassingly obvious that Iowa’s offensive linemen had zero answers for Wisconsin’s attacking 3-4 defense. If linemen weren’t missing assignments altogether out of confusion and blocking no one, they were either whiffing on blocks or getting blasted three yards into the backfield. Nile Kinnick throwing to Marv Cook and Danan Hughes behind last Saturday’s offensive line would have looked terrible.

Until Iowa figures out how to deal with the Badger 3-4 defense, it’s hard to imagine them winning a West Division title over the scarlet and white menace. This needs to be a major focus of the off-season strategy sessions.

Things were a bit better, at least for much of the first half, on the other side of the ball. Wisconsin’s horrible quarterback (seriously, I don’t think I’ve seen a legitimate Top 10 team with a worse signal caller in recent memory) tried very, very hard to give the game away to Iowa.

I knew the Hawkeye goose was cooked when Jackson forced a fumble inside Badger territory, giving Iowa its first decent field position (by the way, at some point someone should really tell Iowa punt returners that you are allowed to CATCH THE BALL IN THE AIR) and the offense went three-and-out in about 30 seconds.

When you look up at the scoreboard and you are losing 10-7 despite having three takeaways to zero, you know it’s not going to be your day. Predictably, with the offense in morass mode, the D wilted in the fourth quarter in the face of the Badgers’ devastating rushing attack.

So as we find ourselves asking too often lately, where does Iowa go from here?

Personally, given Iowa’s sizeable budget, outstanding training and practice facilities, rabid fan base and robust institutional support, an 8-4 season should really be the floor for Hawkeye football. The good news is if Iowa wins its remaining two games, in which it is favored, it will have finished 12-0, 8-4 and 8-4 in its last three regular seasons. That is definitely within the realm of acceptability.

The offense is young and a work-in-progress with a new coordinator, new quarterback, two freshmen tackles and a bunch of young guys at tight end and receiver. We can and should expect them to grow and improve.

I fully expect this team to win out, hopefully put an end to a brutal bowl losing streak, and then come into 2018 as a legitimate contender for the West Division title. Anything short of that – especially if accompanied by another embarrassing outing against the bullying Badger – and one really has to wonder if a long-term Ferentzian dynasty is in the best interest of this program.

The bullied become the bully and man does it feel fantastic

Saturday’s out-of-the-blue triumph – nay, demolition – of the mighty Ohio State Buckeyes seems like a surreal fever dream.

Now I know how the Munchkins felt when Dorothy dropped that house on the green hag from the East. Or the Ewoks after some helpful Jedi blasted dastardly Stormtroopers off of Endor.

The Buckeyes are the big, bad bully of the Big 10, even though we called our Hawks that for a few years in the early 2000s. I’m talking from a historical and national perspective here.

Pick your metaphor: Death Star, the Borg, the New York Yankees. Ohio State is the stronger, better looking guy your ex-girlfriend dates. The Buckeyes are the rich yuppie jerk from every 80s romantic comedy. Ohio State is the freaking Cobra Kai dojo and Urban Meyer is its smirking sensei.

And our boys just crane-kicked their candy asses back to Columbus.

As a fan, is there anything sweeter, anything more fulfilling, than finally seeing your team get its licks in on a longtime tormentor? Sure, this game lacked the heart-stopping thrill of last season’s walk off winning kick over Michigan. And the Hawks didn’t clinch a Big 10 championship before its fans stormed the field like in 2004 against Wisconsin. But in terms of sheer, unbridled joy and surprise, I’m not sure last Saturday doesn’t take the cake. I can’t remember walking out of Kinnick with a bigger smile on my face in some time.

Ironically, this is the same week of the season as last year’s absolute mauling at the hands of Penn State.

I wrote this that depressing week:

Keep believing, and someday you will earn respect and be on top.

The Hawkeyes may be effectively out-of-the-running for a Big 10 championship this year, but they were certainly on top of the college football world mountain Saturday night. Josh Jackson’s acrobatic interception was the SportsCenter #1 play of the day. The amazing hospital wave garnered positive air time and headlines yet again. The state of Iowa was roundly recognized as being the place Blue Blood title hopes go to die.

I’d call that respect, earned.

And now Iowa turns back to a longtime, familiar foe in Wisconsin. Once again, the Hawkeyes are in the role of spoiler, which fortunately for them, is a position in which it excels.

I think the Hawkeyes and Badgers are quite comparable from an athleticism and skill level standpoint. Wisconsin might have a slight edge at running back (this is no swipe at Akrum Wadley, the Badger kid is just that dynamic). But I think Nate Stanley is going to make Badger fans livid that ex-coach Gary Anderson didn’t recruit him and Paul Chryst came in too late to flip him.

I also believe it’s fair to say Iowa will be the biggest, fastest, strongest team the Badgers have played this season. Northwestern is their best win (at home no less) and while they are solidly above average, they aren’t quite as talented across-the-board as Iowa. I feel like these factors, and the fact the home team inexplicably seems to struggle in this series, give the Hawks an edge.

Another potential factor is this year, Iowa is in the role Wisconsin was in 2010. That is, they are the road dog who can play loose. The Badgers have an undefeated season and potential College Football Playoff appearance in the balance. Maybe this year they’ll be the team playing not to lose, which we know all-too-well is the kiss of death.

Whatever the outcome in Madison, this is already a season to remember. The thrilling come-from-behind victory in Ames, the oh-so-close battle against Penn State and the inexplicable dismantling of a high-powered, highly ranked Ohio State will live in the memory banks for a long time.

It’s not every week the eyes of the entire college football world are focused on Iowa City. Let’s remember to enjoy it while we can.

Even in victory worries about the “E” word abound

“We have met the enemy and he is us.”– Pogo

If shooting yourself in the foot was an Olympic sport, the Iowa Hawkeyes football team would be solidly in medal contention.

It feels much, much better to write that sentence after a victory in which it never really felt like the Hawks might lose, but it is just as true this week as it was after the dismal outing in Evanston the week prior.

Between the dropped passes, untimely penalties and crippling turnovers, the fact Iowa managed a more-comfortable-than-the-score-indicates victory over the Minnesota Golden Boat Rowers is a minor miracle.

I hate to parrot the head Hawk, especially when this particular mantra of his is so unpopular, but simple execution errors continue to plague this team. There has been some renewed grumbling about Iowa’s play calling and schemes, particularly on the offensively offensive side of the ball, but I don’t see it. If Iowa had held onto the dropped passes or not held Gopher defenders, this probably would have been a 28-7 laugher and we’d all be somewhat cautiously optimistic with the dreaded Buckeyes coming to town.

Instead, it’s hard to imagine how the Hawks can possibly score enough to keep up with Ohio State.

I also want to note, for the record, that saying play calling and scheme aren’t too blame is not the same as absolving coaches from all responsibility. While I feel youth and inexperience are pretty valid excuses for many of the miscues, we are halfway through the 2017 season and some of the basic mistakes are inexcusable. That is the type of sloppiness you’d like to see get cleaned up in practice, and I’m sure it will be hammered home inside the performance facility this week.

On a more optimistic note, I’m not so sure this wasn’t Nate Stanley’s best day throwing the ball, the drops notwithstanding. His long touchdown pass on play action to Noah Fant was a beauty of a bomb, but a play with a negative outcome may have been the best of the day.

Backed up at his own six yard line with a first and ten, Stanley drops back, pump fakes once, then unleashes a perfect throw that hits a streaking Ihmir Smith-Marsette in full stride sprinting down the sideline. Somehow, Smith-Marsette has the ball bounce off his hands and directly into the arms of a badly beaten Gopher defender for an interception. Make that catch, and Iowa is up 14-0, has a 94-yard passing touchdown in the stat book and no one is grumbling about the “boring” and “predictable” offense.

But that’s football. (Snort)

While we are thinking happy thoughts, let’s think about this Iowa defense. If you would have told me the Hawk D would be holding Big 10 opponents to 17.4 ppg after its first five conference game, I would have assumed the West Division record would be 5-0 or 4-1 at worst. Lost in the nail-biting of one-possession games has been a pretty impressive performance on that side of the ball.

Critics will gripe about allowing big plays and teams to move between the 20s, but at the end of the day, if you keep the opponent out of the end zone, you will win a lot more than you lose. I also think the pass rush has finally gotten on track the past two games and raised quite a bit of havoc with the opponent’s passing game.

The bad news is Iowa still has to play the #1 and #5 scoring offenses in the next two weeks, so it will be imperative that Iowa defenders ramp up their play even more, if possible.

As for the big picture, it’s not going to be easy for Iowa to hit my predicted 8-4 record, but it’s hardly impossible. To me, the key will be to split the next two games against the #3 and #4 teams in the country. Piece of cake, right!?

History says a win over a Top 10 Ohio State team is a virtual impossibility, and I’m afraid I have to agree. I’m in my mid 40s and I’ve only seen Iowa beat the Buckeyes four times and they were only ranked in the Top 10 once, in 1983. Of course, Iowa itself was a Top 10 team that year, coming in at #7.

It’s hard not to expect next week’s blackout game to be a case of “too big, too fast, too strong.” But I do think the Hawks can keep it relatively respectable.

That brings us to our old friend Bucky Badger.

Now, I got sick of everyone badmouthing Iowa’s 2015 schedule while the Hawkeyes were on their way to a perfect 12-0 regular season. So I’m not so much calling Wisconsin a fraud as wondering why they get a free pass when 2015 Iowa didn’t.

The Badgers have played only 1 team with a winning record to date and that is the decidedly mediocre Northwestern team that managed to take advantage of Iowa mistakes to beat the Hawks in overtime. The Badgers didn’t exactly blast them, either, eeking out a one-possession victory at home. In the Badgers’ only other game against a common opponent, Bucky slept-walk through a 24-10 victory over an Illini team Iowa dispatched 45-16.

Does this mean Iowa is sure to win their third-in-a-row at Camp Randall? Nope.

But I think they have more than a fighting chance – especially if they clean up that dreaded execution.

Marching toward mediocrity? Iowa football is all close, but no cigar

Well at least we don’t have to worry about arguing with AP voters not placing Iowa in their Top 25 poll this week.

The Hawkeyes managed to fritter away any chance at rankings, relevance or redemption from last year’s narrow loss to Northwestern by repeatedly, mind-numbingly, ridiculously shooting itself in the foot over and over in a dispiriting overtime loss to the Wildcats in Evanston on Saturday.

As anyone who regularly reads this column knows, I often advocate for giving credit to the opponent and not just focusing on the mistakes of your own team. But for the third time in a loss this season, it was primarily Iowa miscues and basic execution errors that prevented the black and gold from winning.

Failing to catch a punt led to bad field position that resulted in Northwestern’s go-ahead touchdown. A ridiculous false start on fourth-and-less than one late made Iowa kick a tying field goal instead of likely getting a go-ahead touchdown. A blown backfield assignment led to the long run in overtime setting up the Wildcat’s winning score. Dropped passes, a missed field goal and a litany of other errors large and small conspired to prevent what looked like a better Iowa team taking advantage of a pesky (and less error-prone) foe.

This brings me to my other sore spot of the weekend. While I share in the collective angst over this loss, I am a bit perplexed why it has manifested itself in so much vitriolic rage aimed at the Iowa coaches from Iowa fans.

I’ve always believed that a coaching staff’s primary job was to put its team in position to win, and Iowa’s has done that every week. Saturday’s game was there for the taking. But again – just like in the Michigan State game – it was lack of consistency, untimely errors and general screw ups by players that led directly to the loss.

Now, I don’t absolve the staff from all blame. Indeed, it is their job to coach the players up so such errors are few and far between and not seemingly always happening at critical times. But I’m not sure that is a legitimate criticism this season. (People who call me a coaching apologist will call these excuses, but I believe they are objective reasons.)

The biggest one is that 2017 was always going to be a rebuilding year of sorts.

No one wanted the Greg Davis offense to be retired more than me, but adding a new coordinator and other new coaches is always going to result in some growing pains. Throw in the fact Iowa is breaking in a new starting quarterback, virtually all new receiving corps and is playing more true freshman than ever in the Ferentz era and it really isn’t surprising things look hinky and out-of-sorts on the offensive side of the ball.

The critical thing now is for this current crop of Iowa players – and the coaches in new positions – learn from their failures and excel in the future. I am currently reading a biography of Henry Ford, and America’s pre-eminent industrialist frequently talked about failure being the only sure way to eventual improvement. My favorite of his (numerous) quotes on the subject follows:

“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”

This must be the mantra of every Iowa player and coach going forward for the rest of this season.

In addition, it should also be noted that thus far, Iowa has won every game it was favored in and lost every one in which it was an underdog.

While Kirk Ferentz has earned a reputation for slipping up against underdogs, that is not a fair disparagement to throw his way this season, no matter how badly many Hawkeye fans want to believe Northwestern is still the abject failure of a program it was in the 1980s when Hayden Fry routinely hung 50 or more points on them. Being mad that Ferentz doesn’t do the same is just not being very smart about the current landscape of college football or Big 10 history.

One slice of light in the gray cloud of the Northwestern loss is that once again, the game was there for the taking. Unlike last year – when Iowa was run off the field by Penn State and manhandled by Wisconsin – the team hasn’t once looked like it didn’t belong on the same field as its opponent.

Now, this could still happen in a couple weeks when the vaunted Buckeyes come to town, but I think this team – despite its warts and propensity for ill-timed gaffes – has enough raw talent, heart and grit to hang with anyone they play.

And as fans, is there really anything more we are owed?

Tuesdays With Torbee: Rainy days and Lovie can’t get me down

To paraphrase one of my favorite comic strips, the underrated Jim’s Journal:

I went to the Iowa-Illinois game Saturday. It was OK.

It seems churlish to call a 45-16 victory over a border rival underwhelming, but there it is. All-in-all, it was one of those days where nothing was terrible but nothing was particularly great, either.

The weather was spotty, with rain dampening the tailgate, but staying dry and warm for the game. Decent, not great.

It was a ho-hum 11 a.m. start on Big Ten Network, not the bright lights and excitement of national television and a night game. Decent, not great.

Iowa’s offense got things going in the second half, after Nate Stanley shook off a late second quarter interception and another pretty bad series right after. Decent, not great.

The run game found life again, with Toren Young acting as thunder to Akrum Wadley’s lightning, but a few too many rushes were still blown up at or behind the line of scrimmage. Decent, not great.

The defense gave up a big handful of giant “chunk” plays, but the bend-but-don’t-break didn’t break, holding Illinois to field goals on three critical drives. Decent, not great.

The crowd was mostly full, and got loud a few times at key points in the game. The band’s Beatles-themed halftime show was boring-as-usual, but the wave formation was neat. Decent, not great.

Special teams unleashed a couple of successful trick plays and Miguel Recinos remains locked in, but the punt game is still a work-in progress. Decent, not great.

I don’t mean for this to come across as complaining or that I didn’t enjoy the eventual dismantling of Lovie Smith’s Illini. I had a blast tailgating with friends as usual and outside of a few anxious moments in the first half, was never worried Iowa was going to deliver a clunker to a bad team.

It’s just that between Illinois being the shadow of a competitive program, a bye week on the horizon, and a couple Big 10 losses already on the books, the stakes just didn’t feel high enough to justify a lot of intensity. Thank goodness the Iowa players didn’t show that same level of apathy.

Much has already been written about the items on the weekly Ferentzian “clean up” list: picking up run blitzes, ball security, wrapping up on one-on-one tackles and other areas of minor concern. But one gigantic positive that I haven’t seen talked about much, but is a harbinger of better things to come (perhaps even yet this season, but definitely in the longer term) is that the only thing that seems to hold this team back at times is simple consistency.

I just don’t see any glaring holes in talent or scheme. And that’s a pretty big change from the past, including as recently as last season.

In 2016, Iowa didn’t look like it belonged on the same field as Penn State and barely was able to keep up with Wisconsin. That was from both a talent side and a scheme side. Those teams looked like they were playing a better, different form of football than Iowa.

Flash-forward to this season, and the only thing holding Iowa back is itself. Both the Penn State and Michigan State games were there for the taking, if only Iowa could have avoided some self-inflicted disasters.

Perhaps the best example of this is the signal caller, sophomore Nate Stanley. Yes, he still has a tendency to overthrow open receivers (hey, OPEN receivers, that’s a new one!). And he can get a little antsy-pantsy handling the ball (maybe one reason the coaches seem loathe to run sneaks with him?) But the dude stands tall in the pocket and absolutely rifles the ball. He also seems to never get rattled or let a screw up linger and cause him to lose confidence.

Like the rest of the team, all Stanley is missing is a bit more consistency.

If Iowa can harness that consistency and put together 60 minutes of football with the offense, defense and special teams all humming at full capacity in each of its remaining games, this can be a team that rises above decency and approaches greatness.

Tuesdays With Torbee: Deconstructing the Mean Green Menace

By Tory Brecht

Family fights can be extremely physically and mentally draining.

So I guess it should come as no surprise that Iowa looked a bit hungover after its last-second, overtime dispatching of its little brother from Ames the week prior in the first half of its game against the Mean Green of North Texas.

Much as they did in week three last season, the Hawkeyes found themselves in a bare knuckled street fight with an ostensibly overmatched foe wearing green and white uniforms at halftime.

Fortunately for Iowa, NTSU doesn’t have the pedigree or grit of the North Dakota State Bison team that stole a win in Kinnick in 2016. In my Tuesdays With Torbee column after the Bison debacle, I criticized the Iowa coaching staff for abandoning the pass in favor of trying to milk the clock and leaning on the run game. I still think that was a bad call against the Bison, but it sure worked well against the Mean Green.

If Kirk Ferentz were a boxer, I’m not sure the man would ever throw a head shot. It would just be jab after jab after jab to the body until the opponent wilts. It ain’t pretty, but it’s effective.

Brian Ferentz, on the other hand, appears to be more willing to sling the pigskin around a bit. My favorite call of the game was actually the play action pass he dialed up with about 5:40 left in the fourth quarter, coming right after a change of possession, despite it resulting in an incompletion. The throw was on target, as well, and only a stellar play by the Mean Green defensive back prevented a touchdown.

What I love best about the younger Ferentz’s offensive attack is he seems to have inherited some of Hayden Fry’s old “scratch where it itches” philosophy. Whereas the elder coach often seems stubborn to a fault, Brian is going to take what the defense is giving and exploit mismatches. (Hello tight ends, my lord did we miss you!).

The sluggish first half and relatively close score has some Iowa fans worried and certainly didn’t impress poll voters, who have a full six 1-loss teams ranked ahead of the Hawkeyes. I get that, but I don’t think it’s fair to discount the abject awfulness of the officiating crew from Saturday. They managed to suck any semblance of flow or common sense from the game.

I’m not one to bemoan officiating often, and I’d definitely not go there after a loss or even a narrow win. But I feel entitled, as a fan of a team that managed to overcome egregiously pitiful officiating to win comfortably, to point out how awful it was.

Let’s start with the most talked-about controversial call of the game, which ironically is one of the few the officials got right by the letter, if not the spirit, of the law. Yes, Akrum Wadley high-stepped and showboated a bit on his way into the end zone on Iowa’s first touchdown drive. Despite the fact he himself has done this any number of times without getting dinged, and I saw similar displays in roughly a dozen other games just this last Saturday, it was a penalty.

But such a stupid, pointless one to call. Wadley didn’t show anyone up or taunt his opponent. He made the unforgivable football purist sin of showing genuine joy. The horror! I’m not one to thump the “pay college players” drum – though I understand clearly why many do – but these kids give their blood, sweat and sometimes future health to play this game for our amusement. Let the damn kids cut loose a little.

As for the called back touchdown by Nick Easley, maybe he fumbled prior to breaking the plane of the end zone and maybe he didn’t. But it sure as hell couldn’t be seen via any camera angle shared on the television broadcast. And the call on the field was touchdown.

Finally, NTSU’s scoring drive just prior to halftime – the one that made 70,000 stomachs queasy inside Kinnick – only happened because of two of the most horrendous personal foul flags I’ve ever seen thrown. On the first, A.J. Epenesa was literally crawling on the ground when he was blocked into Mean Green quarterback Mason Fine’s leg prior to him flinging a pass. Somehow, that was deemed a personal foul, giving NTSU 15 yards and a first down rather than a third and 10 with time running out.

The next personal foul, though, was even worse! Manny Rugamba was running stride-for-stride down the sideline with a Mean Green receiver, who started stumbling out of bounds during a pass break up. Seeing the receiver off balance and heading right for a practice kicking net, Rugamba appeared to reach out his hand to HELP the receiver NOT fall down. But he fell, and for his good Samaritan effort, Rugamba was flagged. Another 15 yards, and another first down leading to an NTSU score and an undeserved four point halftime lead.

A conspiracy theorist might believe these zebras were on the take, but from my seats, they just looked comically inept.

What is remarkable, though, is despite the shenanigans and weirdness, Iowa managed to stay cool, calm and collected, retool its game plan on the fly, and dominate the entire second half. Past Iowa teams, I think it’s safe to say, may not have had the resolve and confidence to overcome the bad mojo. That’s why I am really starting to like this team; just like in the Iowa State game, they don’t appear to let the moment get too big. We shall see if that pays off as conference play kicks off with the very scary looking Penn State Nittany Lions coming to Iowa City next week.

Bottom line, no matter how ugly last Saturday’s game was, the Hawkeyes sit at 3-0 and undefeated in the non-conference slate for only the fifth time under Coach Ferentz. The last team to start that hot ended the regular season with a spotless 12-0 record and a date in the Big 10 Championship game in Indianapolis.

I think the youth of the 2017 squad and it’s much-tougher schedule will prevent that fantastic outcome from repeating itself, but it should be noted that three of those five teams that got through the non-con unscathed went on to double-digit win seasons.

That seems like a very worthy and attainable goal for this squad.

Follow me on Twitter @ToryBrecht and @12Saturdays.

Rustlin’ Cowpokes

Not much giddy-up from these Cowboys, as the Hawkeye defense smothers Wyoming and their first round QB.  On the other sideline, Iowa QB Nate Stanley finds his sea legs after feeling a bit Fant.  Marc Morehouse joins the crew to talk Iowa football and beer  Yeehaw!

 

Follow us on Twitter:  @12 Saturdays and @marcmorehouse

Tuesdays With Torbee: Mama said don’t let your babies grow up to be Cowboys

By Tory Brecht

As far as home openers go, Iowa’s relentless and workmanlike choke out of a pretty game Wyoming squad was solidly satisfying.

Super exciting plays were in short supply, but anytime you can overcome four turnovers and cruise to a comfortable 21-point victory, you’re doing something right.

I also think if Coach Kirk Ferentz could draw up his ideal opening game, this one would be pretty close to perfection. As I’ve noted before, I think Ferentz views out-of-conference games as analogous to NFL pre-season games and really stresses the “learning” aspect.

On Saturday, there were plenty of lessons to be learned and mistakes to clean up, but the Hawkeyes still managed to physically dominate their opponent on both sides of the line-of-scrimmage for much of the game.

The biggest lesson will certainly be Nathan Stanley and ball security. As Coach Ferentz said in his remarks after the game, you could tell Stanley hadn’t been hit during fall practice and he found out pretty quickly the intensity of such hits is ramped up when you aren’t in the game during mop up time against an already beat up opponent. Of course the good news is this is an eminently teachable skill, and I’d much rather see Stanley get it out of his system in a win than, say, on the road in Ames.

As for the rest of the post Greg Davis offensive era debut, I think Brian Ferentz’s game calling was a shot of adrenaline for fans lulled into a stupor by two yard outs and off tackle dives. Sure, the Iowa offense will never resemble an air raid juggernaut under Ferentzian direction, but there were enough new wrinkles and enough downfield shots to intrigue. And that was with what is always a pretty vanilla game plan against an out-gunned foe early in the season.

If they clean up the miscues and continue to hit deeper passes while limiting drops, this offense can be more than serviceable. Akrum Wadley is going to continue to break off jaw-dropping runs where he leaves multiple defenders dazed and confused, James Butler is going to pound and wiggle for more yards and Stanley will just keep learning and improving. Mark me down as seriously optimistic.

And that defense. Wow. I really can’t remember the last time I couldn’t point to a handful of missed tackles or blown assignments off the top of my head. I thought all 11 defenders knew their assignments, moved to the ball with purpose and brought the boom when making clean tackles.

When Ferentz has a defense like this, watching his game theory approach to football is a thing of beauty. He knows his offense can just chip, chip away without taking risks and the defense can keep everything in front of them until a big play puts the opponent off schedule and then Iowa brings more pressure. It’s like watching a boa constrictor slowly asphyxiate its prey by tightening harder and harder. It may not be that aesthetically pleasing to all, but I find the brutal dominance quite enjoyable.

Speaking of brutal dominance, it’s Iowa State week again and while I’d enjoy to see dominance on par with last year’s 42-3 shellacking at Kinnick, I can’t in good faith predict that outcome.

That isn’t to say I think the Cyclones suddenly have a particularly good team, but I do think they’ve got some talent and built some identity since the early going of the 2016 season. I also know that Iowa all-too frequently has weird things happen to it in the Jack Trice Experimental Wind Tunnel at Ames.

These concerned caveats aside, if the Hawkeyes are going to hit the 8-4 record I predicted, they really can’t lose this game. The rest of the schedule is just too daunting.

I have faith that Brian Ferentz’s saltiness and pride is going to add some much-needed juice to the Iowa attitude going into this blood rivalry and Iowa’s size and strength on both lines will eventually grind the Cyclones down in a similar fashion to the way Wyoming was worn down.

This may be trite and cliché to say, but it’s undeniably true: if Iowa just holds on to the ball, this game is a win.

It is time for Iowa to string multiple wins over Iowa State together for a few years and to finally bump the elder Ferentz’s all-time record versus the Cyclones to over .500.

After all, this is the Hawkeye state.

Follow me on Twitter @ToryBrecht and @12Saturdays.