Football is such a dumb sport. Just first-rate stupid. It’s a big part of why I love it so much. So many smart people spend their time watching, describing, predicting, and quantifying every aspect of college football. And yet, for all this brain power, so much goofy nonsense often ends up running roughshod over any and all attempts to apply logic to a sport involving an awkward oblong ball and a bunch dudes hitting each other. Sometimes things happen that make everyone look around at each other and just shrug in confusion, muttering “shit happens.”
It is this wonderful weirdness which helps to explain a football game in which Iowa didn’t break 150 yards of offense and yet won the game comfortably. This game had the hallmarks of another low-scoring depressing slog in which Iowa’s season regressed into nothingness, what with Iowa’s offensive line holding up about as well as a stack of Legos in a preschool. Yet in a sport which demands eleven players working in perfect unison to achieve anything, one player is sometimes just that much better that they can just take over the game. For Iowa, that was Cooper DeJean, whose singular excellence was the difference between watching a two-score win or watching a shitty remake of the Iowa State loss.
Let’s just get the talk about Iowa’s offense out of the way. And really, it’s the offensive line, whose putrescence pretty much exclusively tanked any hope that Iowa could move the ball. At this point, Petras is as Petras does, but with Badgers not so much racing but teleporting into the backfield, there was little reason to expect more from him. (Except holding onto the ball.) Same goes for the running backs. When basically every third play involved a Wisconsin player running unblocked to the point of attack, their face a mixture of confusion and glee at how unblocked they are, the offense was rendered mostly useless.
I say mostly, because we do have to throw a morsel of credit the offense’s way. Not once, but twice, Iowa got the ball just inside the red zone and both times the offense came away with touchdowns. I realize we are praising them for winning a prize from one of those “Everybody’s a Winner!” fishing ponds, but hey, good for them. Both times, Petras connected with LaPorta (who was out running routes by and past the sticks) before grinding touchdowns on the ground from inside the five-yard line. If Iowa doesn’t punch the ball into the end zone at each opportunity, this game has a very different feel. And that's all I have to say about that.
But enough about our dreary offense, let’s talk this incredible defense and special teams. Can we try to just revel in how incredible these units are? Their transcendent play this year has been otherworldly, and has singlehandedly kept this season from going full 2012. Scoring points, setting up the offense, and of course, making it astoundingly difficult for opposing teams to move the ball, all at a ludicrously high level. However derpy the offense is, we really need to appreciate how outlandishly awesome these other two units are, because this season could have been so much worse.
In the second quarter, with the offense feeling stuck and unattractive and the team in a 3-0 hole thanks in large part to a Spencer Petras fumble, LeVar Woods did what any football team would do to make themselves feel how they want to feel: he dialed 1-800-94-Deontae, because Deontae Craig is on your side, and he’s for real. With Wisconsin punting from their own 19-yard line, Deontae power-walked his blocker towards the punter and got a hand-up, deflecting the ball and giving control of this game to Iowa after the offense got the ball into the end zone.
Iowa and Wisconsin then played a low-stakes game of paddycake over the next four drives before we got our next big play. Graham Mertz dropped back to throw on 2nd-and-8 from Wisconsin's own 27-yard line. The Wisconsin receiver on right side of the formation ran out in front of Cooper DeJean, faked a cut to the inside before turning towards the sideline. Cooper acted like he took the bait, jumping to the inside cut before taking a few step back, giving Mertz the illusion of a passing lane. Mertz took the actual bait and floated the pass towards the sideline and leaving the ball hanging for Mr. Cooper, who nabbed it and sprinted down the sideline for a 14-3 lead. An elite-level punking by Cooper DeJean.
It looked to us and all the world that Iowa was going to take a 14-3 lead into the half, and what with the way Iowa’s defense and Wisconsin’s offense were playing, they probably could have busted out the victory cigars. Instead, we got the defense’s single worse play of the year at the worse possible time. On 3rd-and-18 from the Wisconsin 49-yard line, Mertz dropped back to pass. Keontez Lewis ran deep, and nobody bothered to cover him. Despite some fierce pressure, Mertz was able to fling the ball deep, and Lewis was so open not even Mertz could miss him. The touchdown made it 14-10, and a hush fell over Kinnick Stadium.
It turned out our anxieties were unneeded. Braelon Allen kept running sideways for no gain. Graham Mertz kept overthrowing everybody. They simply could not move the football. But Cooper DeJean removed any trace of worry. That sequence, in which Cooper DeJean saved a punt from going into the end zone, forced a fumble for a loss of two yards, and then returned a punt by running around everybody, Tim Dwight-style, to the Wisconsin 18-yard line was otherworldly. (On top of all the other plays he made on defense.) With so many of the yards pre-chewed by the special teams, the offense had little to do in order to score another touchdown and put on bow on this game by making it 21-10 early in the fourth quarter.
As much fun as it is to beat Wisconsin, and it was fun, this is a hell of a way to live. Other than Iowa, teams that generate less than three yards a play in a game are 0-22. Iowa is 2-2 in such games. That stat alone should tell you how absolutely special Iowa’s special teams and defenses are. Logic and common decency say this shouldn’t be possible. Yet our defense and special teams are willing their way to victory under conditions that frankly seem impossible.
As to the season, Iowa’s got a real, honest-to-goodness shot at getting back to Indy. An Illinois loss and two Iowa wins against Minnesota and Nebraska will do it, which would not be possible in any other self-respecting division in college football, but God bless the Big Ten West. And while our fate in the championship game would likely be another mollywhooping by one of college football’s one percenters, sign me up, because in this stupid sport, it really does seem like anything is possible.
* More Cooper DeJean talk. The guy was everywhere on defense, second only to Jack Campbell in my made-up “How is this dude involved in every tackle?” metric. But with Arland Bruce out, Cooper DeJean thrived returning punts. It felt like he was on the verge of breaking one all game, which he eventually did. Even when Bruce is healthy, Cooper has to be the guy returning punts.
* This offensive line is just, uh, awful. I don’t get how they look this unprepared ten games into the season. Shouldn’t our offensive staff at least be able to teach them how to stand in front of guys trying to tackle the quarterback?
* Does Iowa maybe have a little sumpin’ with Diante Vines? He at least got open occasionally and maybe more. (With this offensive line, who knows?)
* I love the radical approach to throwing the ball to Sam LaPorta somewhat downfield. It is novel and scary, but I like the bold new strategy.
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