It turns out the best treatment for Iowa’s offensive woes was a visit from Dr. just Northwestern, with meajor emphasis on the word just. This was probably the just-iest Northwestern team in a loooooooooong time. I have a self-diagnosed autonomic twitch whenever Northwestern comes up on Iowa’s schedule, primarily because their coach, well, it’s Pat. Pat Fitzgerald’s reputation as an evil, Hawkeye-destroying wizard precedes him, and he has punked better Iowa teams than this one. In a fun plot twist, Pat brought maybe his worst team in the entirety of his tenure as Northwestern’s coach with him to Iowa City, with the game proceeding accordingly.
While I’m certainly skeptical about taking anything away from this game as evidence of Iowa’s improvement as an offensive unit, I don’t give a rip how terrible Northwestern was. This game was just a plumb good time. It was really nice to have a Saturday that reminded us that Hawkeye football can actually be fun.
And Iowa wasted no time getting the party started either. Getting the ball first, Arland Bruce took a handoff and carried the ball for 8 yards. Kaleb Johnson one-upped him with an 18-yard-carry on the next play. A 15-yard pass to LaPorta and two more explosions by Johnson on the ground got the ball to the Northwestern 17-yard line. Now I don’t want to be negative here, but if there is one hairy liver spot on this game, it was Iowa’s continued misery in the red zone, even against Northwestern. It is a sign of just how bad Iowa has been that Iowa’s 40% touchdown rate in the red zone was an improvement over their season average of 33%. But if Iowa gets to the red zone as often as they did in this game, we can live with that, however abysmal it is.
But even though the redz one is still the farm upstate to this Hawkeye offense, kicking off the opening drive with a field goal is A-OK. After a Deontae Craig sack of Brendan Sullivan ended Northwestern’s first drive, Iowa’s offense would really get to cook with fire. While an illegal use of the hands penalty to start the drive looked like it was going to doom the offense’s chances of scoring from the get-go, a couple of sharp passes by Spencer Petras and a Petras run got the ball to the 50 for a fourth-and-one. Iowa elected to go for it and with Spencer Petras keeping the ball on the Nate Stanley special, the Hawkeyes converted their first fourth down of the season. Yippee-Ki-Yay.
It is here that I want to point out that Spencer Petras was straight-up good against Northwestern. Usually we pour a cavalcade of caveats before any statement about his play or otherwise twist ourselves in knots trying to squeeze out some positive affirmations from his game, but that isn’t necessary here. Spencer Petras was good, full-stop. His numbers, 21-for-30, 220 yards and a touchdown, speak for themselves, but this was the straight-up chillest we have ever seen him. I mean word to your mother, he was calm, collected, in command, and he looked like he was actually enjoying himself. He was decisive and accurate all game long. The play of this drive was easily the third-and-three from the Northwestern 40. You know the one. Spencer dropped back, the pocket started to crumble, and he took off, looking to nab the three yards with his feet. Only Spencer kept his head up and noticed Monte Pottebaum loitering by himself in the flat to his left and flicked the ball his way. Monte took Spencer’s gift down the sideline for 17 yards. A few plays later Petras capped off the drive with a QB sneak touchdown and Iowa was in complete control.
Northwestern had a little bit of arcane magic up their sleeves, working the ball to the Iowa 22-yard line. Luckily, Iowa’s defense knew the counter spells. A penalty moved Northwestern back ten yards. A sack by Ethan Hurkett moved them back another ten yards. And on 3rd-and-27, Andrew Sullivan collapsed under the weight of his own ineptitude in the backfield for a nine-yard loss, ending the threat.
Another great drive was stifled in the redzone, but the ensuing field goal gave Iowa a 13-point lead, which honestly felt like enough to win the game. So when Iowa stopped Northwestern again and got the ball back with 1:28 left in the half, it was the absolutely cherry on top of the sundae that the offense piled on one more touchdown drive before the break. Totaling 50 yards across six plays, the drive covered 1:06 and was capped off by it took Petras finding Luke Lachey in the end zone. It was the prettiest Iowa’s offense has looked in probably two years, save maybe the Maryland game last year. With all the chunk plays, everyone was doing the Truffle Shuffle.
Needless to say, a 20-0 halftime lead for this team is very legit. I wouldn’t have been worried about Iowa losing the game against most teams. Against this version of jNorthwestern? This game was more in the bag than Winston Churchill. The only lame thing that happened in the second half was Tory Taylor’s only punt of the day being a shank which lead to a Northwestern touchdown drive on the short field. What a relief it is that after one lousy punt and a drive with some less-stellar-than-usual defense Northwestern was still down 13 points and not a serious threat to win the game.
Iowa didn’t just squat on the lead, though. Iowa’s offense broke up with another perfectly good drive in the red zone on the next series, but the lead was pushed to 16 points. We also got a moonshot field goal from Drew Stevens from 54 yards out that might have been good from 57 which stretched the lead to 19 points, before an FU touchdown run by Arland Bruce from 23 yards out to eliminate any shadows of doubt about the outcome. (Northwestern also got a garbage time touchdown, but... big whoop.)
Aside from the play of Petras, the other big takeaway from this game is the play of Iowa’s offensive line. After spending the whole season being as useful as the popcorn button on a microwave, against Northwestern you could probably call them the origami line, because they were making creases out of the Northwestern defense. Kaleb Johnson and LeShon Williams had massive gaps and cutback lanes all game long. It was a joy to watch these running backs actually get to strut their stuff with room to run. And Petras not surprisingly played better when he had time in the pocket. (And when he didn’t, he handled it well.)
All of these joyful vibes come with the acknowledgement that playing this Northwestern team is the college football equivalent of bowling with the bumpers on. This was not so much a get-right game as playing pickup basketball against ten-year-olds. If there ever is a Philosophy of Sickos seminar, you could write a disgusting thesis on whether Northwestern or Nevada is worse at football. Still, the game didn’t have to go this well. (I certainly didn’t expect it to.) When you’ve been bowling straight gutterballs for weeks, you can’t really complain how you get the strikes. A daunting visit to West Lafeyette looms, but for at least one Saturday, Hawkeye football was fun.
* That Kaleb Johnson. He looks engineered for this Hawkeye zone-running scheme. I love his Terminator-like vision in reading the blocks to maximize every running play. He had a play in the second half where he hesitated for a nano-second before warping through the hole right when it developed. If he can get some quality blocking the next couple of years, this offense could be really fun to watch.
* That Drew Stevens. That 54-yarder somehow felt nonchalant. What a relief that Iowa has a minimum of two more years with the kicker position locked up, and the dude is a walk-on.
* The defensive line probably hasn't gotten enough due. They have struggled against some elite rushing teams, but the pass rush has looked good all season to my eyes. They just hadn’t gotten home all that much -- until this game. With Northwestern playing from behind and Evan Hull a non-factor, the defensive line gobbled up seven sacks and it was incredible, even against jNorthwestern. (Side-note: Iowa’s pass rush has looked good all season long to my eyes, with teams like Illinois and Michigan getting the ball out quickly to minimize the chance of a negative play. Does anybody have pressure rates for the Hawkeyes?)
* The playcalling. The announcers mentioned something about pre-snap motion. I'm far too stupid to notice much of that in real-time, but the plays themselves looked pretty much the same. Northwestern just sucked at covering them. (Like the shallow crosses being wide-open.) I feel like we have gone down this road before (fancy pre-snap motion before running the same stuff), but either way, I hope it continues to work.
* I don’t know what it would take for Pat Fitzgerald to be fired, but if there is any chance that this game hastens his departure, all the better.
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