After an eight-month hibernation, Iowa football made its return tonight and for around 30 minutes of game time we were left wondering if that was really a good thing. Iowa beat Miami (OH) 38-14, but the first half of this game was... not particularly good. Iowa didn't look sharp on offense or defense, struggling to finish drives on offense and having difficulty getting pressure and forcing stops on defense. Iowa only managed a field goal in the first quarter and actually trailed 7-3 after giving up a touchdown pass from Miami's true freshman (a point FS1 commentator Robert Smith hammered home relentlessly) Brett Gabbert in the second quarter.
Iowa responded to that Miami scoring drive with one of their own, capping it with a pretty touchdown pass from Nate Stanley to Brandon Smith. That gave Iowa a 10-7 lead that they would no relinquish for the rest of the game. Iowa still struggled to get things to click for the remainder of the second quarter, though, and entered halftime with a narrow 10-7 lead on the RedHawks. Visions of past MAC struggle-fests danced in our heads.
Fortunately, the halftime adjustments that Kirk Ferentz, Brian Ferentz, and Phil Parker dialed up worked very well. After forcing a three-and-out from Miami on their first drive after the break, Iowa stormed down the field with another scoring drive, this time featuring Oliver Martin grabbing a touchdown for his first-ever catch in an Iowa uniform.
Seriously, that's still unbelievable to me and such a storybook thing to have actually happen.
Martin's touchdown gave Iowa a 17-7 lead and that seemed to break the game open. After forcing another quick punt from the RedHawks, the suddenly unstoppable Iowa offense marched down the field on three plays (the highlight between a 45-yard connection from Nate Stanley to Nico Ragaini) and scored another touchdown to go up 24-7. After forcing another Miami punt, Iowa's offense was again on the march and looking to extend the lead further, when a terrible fumble from Brady Ross put a half to Iowa's momentum. After getting stuffed on a 3rd and 1 run, Ross appeared to try to lateral the ball to Nate Stanley. That was a bad idea to begin with and it ended up being a complete disaster when the ball squirted free and was recovered by Miami.
The ensuing Miami drive was their one bright spot of the second half (as well as the Iowa defense's one negative from the second half) as they finished off a 60-yard drive with a touchdown to cut Iowa's lead to 24-14. By then the Miami defense was thoroughly worn down, though, and Iowa was able to grind them to a fine mist with a 13-play, 75-yard drive that ended with a Toren Young 2-yard touchdown run and ate up almost seven minutes of clock. That score put Iowa up 31-14 and salted the game away with just six minutes remaining. Iowa added a final touchdown three minutes later when Stanley connected with Ihmir Smith-Marsette for a touchdown on a tunnel screen.
This was our first glimpse of the Iowa offense sans two dominant tight ends and it was... interesting. There was definitely a greater emphasis on the receivers -- Iowa ran a lot of three-wide sets and Stanley was definitely focused on getting the ball to the receivers. 11 of Stanley's 21 completions were spread between five different receivers; Ihmir Smith-Marsette led the receivers in catches (4), though Ragaini led them in yards (45), but Smith and Martin each hauled in touchdowns. By comparison, the only tight end to catch a pass was Shaun Beyer, who had three receptions for 30 yards, though he did manage to corral some very difficult passes.
The running backs were also a focus of the passing game, especially early on. Mekhi Sargent ended up leading the team in receptions (4) and yards (65), though two-third of those receiving yards came on a 41-yard screen pass. But in addition to Sargent's four catches, Toren Young, Brady Ross, and Tyler Goodson each had a reception; the running backs look like they may be an effective safety valve for Stanley in the passing game.
Speaking of the running backs, the chatter all offseason was about the time-share in Iowa's backfield and how much they would need to share carries. In practice, the running back position looks like the Mekhi Sargent Show at this point. Sargent ran for 91 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries, in addition to his 4 receptions for 65 yards in the passing game. In addition to his impressive numbers, he just looked good running the ball -- he has good vision, solid bursts, and reads his blocks well. None of this is really a surprise -- Sargent emerged as the top running back on the team at the end of last season, but his performance tonight only emphasized that right now he should be the top man in the rotation.
That said, Toren Young wasn't bad -- he had 48 yards and a score on nine carries (5.3 ypc) and his more physical style provided a nice counter-punch to Sargent. He does need to improve his vision and his decision-making a little bit; there were times when he could have probably gained another 5-10 yards if he had made his cut a few seconds earlier. Iowa's third running back was true freshman Tyler Goodson, who ran nine times for 36 yards. Most of his carries came in garbage time, but he showed an impressive burst in his runs and his skillset is something that isn't well-represented in Iowa's other running backs.
Overall, the offensive line seemed to play well in this game. Stanley was rarely pressured thanks to the protection they afforded him in the pocket, and they mauled Miami in the run game and opened up plenty of large holes for Iowa running backs to motor through. Short yardage situations remained problematic at times, but the issues there appear to be as much about play design and playcalling as they do the offensive line's specific performance. The only real negative regarding the offensive line is injury-related -- star left tackle Alaric Jackson went down with a leg injury in the first half and did not return. He was walking on crutches later in the game and reportedly putting very little weight on his injured leg, which does not sound promising.
Stanley finished the night 21/30 for 252 yards, three touchdowns, and no turnovers. There was a lot to like about his performance, although some of the old flaws also resurfaced -- he overthrew Smith on a potential big play downfield and his touch was lacking at times. Sterner tests than Miami (OH) await, though, so we'll see if Stanley is able to answer those challenges. He threw a lot of very good passes in this game and ultimately a line like his will result in a lot of wins for Iowa.
On defense Iowa kept Miami firmly in check for long stretches of the game, but also had some troubling moments. D.J. Johnson struggled at times in his first appearance in the "cash" role on defense, to the point that Iowa seemed to switch to more traditional 4-3 looks in the second half. Kaevon Merriweather, getting his first start at free safety, looked lost at times and seemed a step out of place on several plays during the first half, though his play did improve in the second half. The secondary as a whole looked rocky in the first half, but they tightened up in the second half (minus Miami's lone scoring drive). And obviously we still have plenty of faith in Phil Parker to work out the kinks in the play of the defensive backs.
At times in the first half the defensive line seemed to struggle to pressure Gabbert, although that was also partly because Miami ran a lot of fast-developing plays and he was able to get the ball out quickly. But the pressure definitely increased in the second half, highlighted by Amani Jones' rocket-powered sack in the third quarter. And Iowa stifled the Miami rushing attack all game long; they had just 59 yards on 25 carries, a measly 2.4 yards per carry.
This was far from a flawless performance, but it was still a comfortable win and a game where Iowa did a lot of things right. The difference between the first and second halves of this game was stark and if the "real" Iowa is more like the team we saw in the second half, this could still be a very, very good season. We'll find out more as the season progresses; for now we're 1-0 and all of our goals are still very much there for the taking.
[Ed. note: This article originally included that Ivory Kelly-Martin did not see the field in this game. He did play limited minutes late in the game.]