Cruel and fickle though they are, sometimes the football gods are on your side. While last week against Northwestern was a wonderful reprieve from this previously miserable season of Hawkeye football, just about everyone (definitely me) was bracing for Jeff Prohm’s annual masterclass in attacking Phil Parker’s defense. What with the offense surely falling off the competency wagon against a real team meant the goods times were gonna stop rolling against Purdue. But we were all of us deceived.
Forecasts portended gusty winds heading into the game, but we all missed predicting the real storm: Iowa’s single biggest (only) ass-kicking of Purdue in the Jeff Brohm era. With Purdue’s little train giving up the ghost during the pregame festivities, it was a sure sign that the college football gods were smiling upon us. Ferentzball is often more tedious than enjoyable, but when Iowa builds up a lead, watching an offense break itself on Iowa’s brick wall defense is about as much fun as you can have with your clothes on.
Things started a smidge slower than last week. The two teams spent most of the first quarter playing grabass to the tune of a 0-0 score. With Purdue backed up on their four-yard line, Aiden O’Connoll uncorked a corker to Charlie Jones who raced past Cooper DeJean to haul in the pass for 41 yards. While Purdue didn't gain another first down, they flipped the field position, dooming Iowa to start a drive from their own nine-yard line. Enter: Sam LaPorta.
Now there are a lot of players who deserve some props from this game, but for this drive, it was Sam LaPorta who made the Hawkeye offense LaPortable. (Sorry.) On 2nd-and-7 from their own 12-yard line, Yosemite Sam just straight-up ran past the hapless dude trying to cover him. With time, Spencer “Pistol” Petras shot a line drive that cut through the wind and right into the arms of LaPorta for a 41-yard reception of Iowa’s own. After another first down courtesy of a couple of Kaleb Johnson runs, on 3rd-and-8, Salami Sam ran up the seam and turned around in front of cotton-soft coverage, caught the ball, and then lowered his shoulder for another first down. On the very next day, Slammin’ Sammy ran out 11 yards, planted his foot and cut towards the sideline, getting another strike from Petras and barreling through the Purdue defenders drifting aimlessly in zone coverage for Iowa’s first passing touchdown on the road in over a year. It was tres magnifique.
Faced with a ferocious pass rush, O'Connell made it a point to get the ball out as quickly as possible. While probably a sound idea in theory, in a reality of swirling wind, his anxious desire to unload the ball before being planted into the ground contributed to him sailing passes all game long. On the second play of the very next drive, he took the snap, went backwards three steps, and hastily flung the football over the middle of the field to find transfer wide receiver Tyrone Tracy. The pass sailed to Kaevon Merriweather, who caressed it to the ground and got the ball right back to the suddenly explosive Iowa offense.
It took Iowa all of three plays to travel the 50 yards to the end zone, and one of those plays was an incomplete pass. Let’s talk the improved play of the suddenly surging Spencer Petras. Aside from the presence/footwork/nerves being the best we have ever seen from him, the biggest strides have come from him executing the basic plays in the offense with a previously absent precision and timing. The first play of this drive was a roll-out play-action pass to his left. He hit Luke Lachey in stride and Lachey went down the left sideline for 22 yards. After an incompletion, Petras lined up in shotgun and surveyed the field. Purdue had a blitz on, eager to bring out the worst in Iowa’s quarterback. Petras took the snap and one step back before before hitting Nico Ragaini, running the shallowest of crosses, perfectly in stride. Already at a full-sprint and not needing to slow down to catch the ball, Nico took his turn running down the sideline, outrunning a flailing tackle attempt for another Iowa touchdown. It was the perfect read and a perfect throw on a play where if Petras doesn’t get the ball out immediately, he's going to get wreck by an unblocked blitzer and the offense is going backwards.
Purdue’s offense finally started to cook a bit on the next drive. No matter. After working the ball to the Iowa 26-yard line after an errant kickoff, a couple of nice plays, and a touchdown-saving hold by Riley Moss, O'Connell again chucked the ball with a bunch of dudes in his face and pushed it high. The ball bounced off the fingertips of the Purdue player and make a bee-line for Seth Benson’s feet. Bensone busted out his shovel and dug up the ball before it hit the turf. The play was reviewed, mostly because the refs just wanted to revel in the glory of Seth Benson’s ballin’ interception for a minute.
This is the part of the article where we talk about Kaleb Johnson. Golly gee whilikers, this guy is great at football. It’s like he already has a doctorate in being a fucking awesome running back. The first play after the interception was a zone run to the left. KJ approached the line of scrimmage and slowed, like a velociraptor setting up a trap. With Purdue’s run contain sliding inward to make a play, Johnson pounced with a jump cut towards the sideline and went from zero to cheetah in a dead sprint in a matter of microseconds, racing down the sideline and shrugging off would-be tacklers for a 41-yard gain. Boy howdy, having a running back that can get 41 yards on a run play that wasn’t blocked all that well is something else.
Lest you forget, Iowa’s red zone offense is still pretty terrible. On this same drive, Iowa got the ball down to the Purdue one-yard line on first-and-goal. Then went backwards on a Kaleb Johnson run. Backwards again when Arland Bruce and Kaleb Johnson collided into each other in the backfield in a heartfelt Three Stooges homage, and capped off the awfulness with a Petras sack. If Iowa can’t be good in the red zone, at least they can be funny. A Drew Stevens field goal made it a three-score game, and it was all good vibes despite the buffoonery, because 17 points in a half isn't just good for Iowa, it's pretty good for a 2022 college football team.
Purdue ate up most of the rest of the half working the ball to Iowa’s two-yard-line. Iowa’s defense held and a monster sack by Iowa’s Hercules (Lukas Van Ness) on third down dissuaded Jeff Brohm from attempting any fourth down chicanery, instead settling for a field goal. Iowa didn't make a serious attempt to move the ball with the time remaining in the half, content with a 17-3 lead.
As to the second half, there is really only one play worth mentioning. The mid-round knockout punch which effectively sealed the game for Iowa, not even two minutes into the half. On second-and-ten, Kaleb Johnson took a handoff straight-up the middle with a load of space to run. The Purdue defense stood in a trance, mesmerized by the elegance and grace with which Kaleb Johnson runs the ball, as he ran ten yards downfield before bouncing outside and down the sidelines for 75 yards in the prettiest play in football, the long touchdown run in which the running back goes untouched by nary an opposing player.
Having amassed a big stack of chips, Kirk pretty much folded on every offensive possession from here on out. Watching Iowa’s offense flip the dial from "explosive" to "let's loiter at the mall and kill time" is usually a bummer and a recipe for disaster. On this blustery day in West Lafayette, it was pure badassery. We got to see the Iowa defense go full boa constrictor, squeezing the life out of the Purdue offense, completely unable to move the ball. The smug satisfaction of watching Purdue come to the slow realization that there was nothing they could do to score points and win the football game is the closest I’ll ever get to being inside Kirk’s head.
With the caveat that no one is going to write songs about the glory of either the Northwestern or Purdue defenses and with only a modest amount of grudging, I admit this offense has improved substantially. To a frankly shocking degree. This is easily the best two-game stretch of Iowa offense in two years. It isn’t otherworldly, but it is more than enough for Iowa to be the best team in the soon-to-be-extinct Big Ten West.
With two big boy defenses up the next couple of weeks in Wisconsin and Minnesota, things are probably going to go back to looking nasty on the offensive side. But, for the first time in awhile, there is hope they can contribute something against an elite defense. And that’s the thing. It isn’t hope, but hopelessness that can kill a football team.
* I didn’t highlight it earlier, but more than anything, this offensive revival has been brought on by the offensive line playing much better. They have cut down substantially on the “defender running unblocked into the backfield” plays and switched them with occasional “this line looks really dominant” plays. It absolutely is helping bring out the best in Kaleb Johnson and Spencer Petras.
* Speaking of Kaleb Johnson, dude seems like he was engineered in a lab to be running back. Whatever attribute you want from a running back: vision, smarts, speed, balance, physicality, explosiveness, he’s got in in spades. I’m giddy about the prospect of having a Shone Greene-caliber running back for the next two years.
* Spencer Petras. It is hard to overstate just how massive his improvement has been. There isn’t a single facet of his game that hasn’t been far better the last two weeks. If he keeps it up against an elite defense, he can really get all the haters (me) to shut their stupid faces.
* It is hard not to play the “What if?” game when you watch this incredible defense. What if this offense didn’t need a half-a-season to go from miserable to decent? What if the coaching could have wrung just a little bit more out of the offense against Illinois? Because damn, this defense is great.
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