Another week, another gut-punch loss. Rinse and repeat.
The main culprit this week was a defense that had previously seemed fairly impenetrable but turned out to be very penetrable after all. Purdue racked up 434 yards of total offense, the most by an Iowa opponent all season and the most since --
*checks notes again*
Illinois racked up 446 yards last season. (Seriously.) Most of those yards came through the air, where Purdue QB David Blough turned into a blowtorch and roasted Iowa's secondary to the tune of 333 passing yards and four touchdowns. Iowa has been rolling out two freshmen cornerbacks for the last month and largely getting away with it; that luck ran out today. Those cornerbacks were targeted early and often by Blough, particularly Riley Moss who ended up on Purdue's Terry Wright today. Wright had 146 yards and three touchdowns on six catches today; entering the game he had 15 receptions for 200 yards and two scores. Unsurprisingly, Moss was eventually replaced by Michael Ojemudia, but the damage (so much damage) was already done. Julius Brents wasn't targeted nearly as much as Moss and didn't get burned in coverage, though he did have some costly missed tackles early (he partly made up for that with a key tackle late in the fourth quarter that ultimately led to a Purdue punt).
Blough did make a few mistakes in the second half that helped Iowa climb back into the game -- a trick play went awry and led to a Jake Gervase interception in the third quarter; unfortunately, Iowa's offense couldn't capitalize and the ensuing (terrible) punt was returned for 24 yards by Rondale Moore to the Iowa 18-yard line. Six plays later Purdue scored their fifth and final touchdown of the game to go up 35-23. Speaking of Moore, he was identified as Purdue's primary weapon heading into the game, but Iowa kept him under wraps aside from that punt return. He finished with six catches for 31 yards, three kickoff returns for 33 yards, and that 24-yard punt return. Sadly, it turns out Purdue has a lot of other weapons, too.
Iowa's offense did enough to keep pace with Purdue for most of the game and took a late lead after an Amani Hooker interception (Blough's other second half miscue) set Iowa up at the Purdue 26-yard line. Nate Stanley finished 21/32 for 275 yards and a touchdown and, for just the second time all season, no turnovers. He struggled for a stretch in the second quarter, but was better in the second half. Noah Fant led all Iowa receivers with three catches for 85 yards, most coming after the catch on a 65-yard catch and run off a flare route. T.J. Hockenson had four catches for 39 yards (and Iowa's only receiving touchdown). Were Fant and Hockenson targeted enough? Probably not, which just makes this a day ending in -y.
Iowa struggled to run the ball, which was a big problem at the end of the game. Overall, Iowa ran for 118 yards and four touchdowns on 37 carries, a meager 3.2 yards per carry. That's Iowa's third-worst per-carry average of the season, behind 2.92 yards per carry against Iowa State and 2.65 yards per carry against Minnesota. Overall Iowa was averaging 3.95 yards per carry entering this game; that will go down after this performance. This just isn't a good running team. That hurt at the end of the game, with Iowa nursing a one-point lead (36-35) and trying to burn clock. They managed to burn 3:30 off the clock, but were forced to punt -- and after another poor punt Purdue got the ball at midfield.
Purdue drove down for the game-winning field goal after that, draining 4:22 off the clock in the process. The scoring drive was aided by a controversial pass interference call on Iowa, one of many controversial penalties in the game. There was a lot of laundry on the field in this game -- Iowa was penalized 8 times for 75 yards, while Purdue got dinged 6 times for 60 yards. There were bad -- or at least questionable -- calls on both sides, as well as a frustrating amount of inconsistency in what was or wasn't a penalty. It was not one for the refereeing highlight reels. That said, Iowa's too-porous defense seems like a much bigger culprit in this loss.
Well, that and Iowa's sure-to-be-debated decisions to go for two in the second half. After Iowa cut the Purdue lead to 28-23 with 9:33 to go in the third quarter, Iowa went for two the first time, trying to cut the lead to 28-25. Stanley put too much zip on his pass, though, and it fell incomplete. Then, after going up 36-35 in the fourth quarter, Iowa again went for two; again they fell short. Obviously if Iowa converts just one of those two-point tries (or just kicks extra points after both touchdowns), Purdue's kick at the end would have been to tie the game, not win it.
The second two-point conversion try was a no-brainer. There's no difference in being up 37-35 versus 36-35, while there is certainly a big difference in being up 38-35. But Iowa only needed to go for two there because they had failed in their earlier two-point try. And that one is harder to defend. There's some logic to getting the score to within three so a field goal ties it, but... you weren't going to win this game with field goals. (Yes, Purdue did technically win the game with a field goal... but only after scoring five touchdowns first.) With over 24 minutes left to go in the game, there was a lot of time remaining -- and, likely, a lot more scoring opportunities. Going for two there seemed premature and it proved very costly.
The loss drops Iowa to 6-3 overall and 3-3 in the Big Ten, two games behind Northwestern and a game behind Wisconsin and Purdue -- who each have a win over Iowa now as well. The Big Ten West dream may not be officially dead yet, but it's dead for all practical purposes. Which means this team needs to figure out what it's going to play for over the next three games. Do they want to try and end the season on a high note with as many wins as possible? Or is this check-out time, the way it was in 2010 or 2014, when multiple painful losses led to forgettable seasons? We'll find out soon. In the meantime, we're all left with another round of what ifs from another gut-punch loss.