One Defining Moment: Iowa vs Iowa State

By erut17 on September 13, 2021 at 12:00 pm
GO HAWKS GO
ABC
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Each week, "One Defining Moment" will dive into the game's most important moment and break it down in all its glory, or in unfortunate cases, its horror. This week: Jestin Jacobs and Jack Campbell combine for a scoop and score, squashing Cyclone hopes.

Anyone else have a surprising sense of calm going into this year's Cy-Hawk game? Iowa's #10 ranking felt a bit ambitious to me, and Iowa State had proven that they could hang with the country's elite in 2020, only to return most of the key cogs from that machine. And yet, there's a quiet confidence to this Iowa team that put me at ease. Petras, not always spectacular, has learned that if he doesn't turn the ball over, the extraordinary defense and special teams are going to keep Iowa in every game.

We've seen almost this exact same script every week since Iowa's disappointing loss against Northwestern last year. I've written over and over that the only thing standing between Iowa and something special is a step forward from the offense. The more that I watch though, the more convinced I am that this defense and special teams unit is plenty special enough in their own right. 

Saturday was a step up in competition but still yielded the exact same results. Iowa leaned on its defense and special teams to slowly squeeze the life out of the Cyclones until they were finally able to break through with a scoop-and-score that gave the Hawks some breathing room and crushed the Iowa State morale. There was still a quarter to play, but in one moment, Iowa announced its arrival onto the national stage.

The Moment

Iowa led for most of the day, but midway through the 3rd quarter, the four-point spread still felt far from comfortable. Iowa's drive stalled after Spencer Petras took a bad sack to push the team out of field goal range. (Frustratingly, he did that twice during the game. Understanding that points and possessions matter is more than just avoiding turnovers.) PUNTGOD Tory Taylor made up for the mistake, pinning the Cyclones deep in their own territory. 

It took just one play for Iowa's defense to find the game-breaking play they had been pushing for for, a forced fumble and scoop n' score from Jestin Jacobs and Jack Campbell.

A Closer Look

On first down from their own six-yard line, Brock Purdy ran a read option and correctly handed the ball off to All-American running back Breece Hall. Hall wanted to take the ball up the middle, but the defensive line stuffed all available gaps, forcing Hall to bounce it outside. Iowa's Jestin Jacobs was responsible for the edge, dismissed his blocker, and made a textbook tackle on Hall, putting a hand right on the football and jarring it loose. Jack Campbell swooped in, picked up the bouncing ball, and carried it in for the short scoop n' score.

Jacobs has been so impressive to start the year, playing with a speed and power that stands out, even among an uber-physical Hawkeye defense. He flies around the field and shows up around the ball play after play, even with limited playing time. It reminds me of AJ Epenesa's freshman year. Limited opportunity, maximum impact.

Campbell is the de facto leader of the defense at middle linebacker and is as physical as Jacobs, looking to inflict damage on every tackle, rallying to the ball, and taking advantage of game-changing opportunities.

This Iowa defense is so explosive, but they don't sacrifice their fundamentals in search of the big play. They smother the opponent, force them to change their game plans, and don't give away easy yards (the one long reception from Iowa State was an outlier, but that chase-down and tackle excited me far more than a tackle after a 40-yard play should have).

The Iowa defense has now scored 21 points on the season and given up 23. Think about how incredible that is, regardless of the competition, and then remember that the Hawkeyes are doing that against two ranked Power 5 opponents. Campbell's touchdown made it 21-10 Iowa, only a two-score game, but it felt like far more with the way Iowa's defense was wearing down the Cyclones. An interception the next drive broke the Iowa State ranks and it was all Hawkeyes from there.

Impact

The impact on the game was clear, not only on the scoreboard but in the energy around the stadium from that point forward. A tense game was all of a sudden in danger of being blown wide open and you could sense the distress from the Cyclone side. Two more interceptions from Purdy later and a preseason Heisman candidate was watching his backup take snaps while the fourth quarter melted away.

Turnovers are always going to be momentum swings, but defensive touchdowns can redefine a game. Think about Hooker against Ohio State, Hesse against Nebraska, Clayborn against Penn State. If you can put points on the board before your QB even takes the field on a drive, it can completely change the story of a game. 

Iowa's defense will always be good, but what makes them special this year is their knack for exclamation points. Turnovers, sacks, touchdowns. This isn't a defense that will give the offense a chance to win, this is a defense that'll just go out and win it themselves.

So now Iowa is ranked #5, which means expectations. No more sneaking up on people, no more slow and steady climb up the rankings. Iowa has the most impressive resume in the country. The conversation is going to expand. You're going to hear someone ask how Iowa stacks up against the Clemsons and Alabamas of the world instead of the Northwesterns and Purdues.

I haven't fully wrapped my head around an Iowa team that looks so similar to so many Hawkeye teams before; question marks on both sides of the ball coming into the season, discombobulated on offense, except that now they're hanging out with the country's elite. Petras will have to be better (and I think he actually looked pretty good when he could stay in rhythm and avoid having to improvise), the offensive line will have to be better (which I think may help Petras more than anything else), and the defense is going to be expected to be extraordinary week in and week out. It's a big ask, but this should be what we live for. 

In an instant, the scope of Iowa's season changed. It's scary, nerve-wracking, and most of all, fun as hell. Enjoy this. Cheer these kids on. Soak in Iowa reaching the potential we always felt like they could. Oh yeah, and remind the next Cyclone you see that the Cy-Hawk trophy has been here so long, it's starting first grade in Iowa City this year. How many more years until we start calling it the Cy-Hawk statue? Because it sure doesn't seem like it's moving.

Hawkeye State.

Go. Iowa. Awesome.

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