Shall we focus on the good news? I think we should. There's plenty of bad news in the world (and in this game), so why not start with something good. So: Iowa won a football game! That's good. After falling short two weeks in a row in agonizing fashion against Michigan and Penn State, Iowa was again victorious in a game on this Saturday, sending the Space Force warriors from West Lafayette back home in defeat, 26-20. Also good: the Iowa offense woke up from its slumber. Sort of. But they did score two (as in more than one) touchdowns in this game, which is more than Iowa had managed in a single game against an opponent since the Middle Tennessee State game many moons ago.
But while this game was a win, it was in no way an emphatic bounce back performance or a "get right" game for Iowa, in particular the offense. Iowa still ran the ball with only minimal effectiveness: a grand total of 102 yards (and two touchdowns) on 33 carries, which works out to a grisly 3.1 ypc average. Mekhi Sargent was Iowa's most effective runner; he finished with 68 yards and a touchdown (the eventual game-winner, as it turned out) on 13 carries. 35 of those rushing yards (all by Sargent) came on that final touchdown drive; for the vast majority of the game, running the ball was still nigh-impossible for Iowa.
To the extent that Iowa's offense worked today, production came through the air (as it has the past few weeks). Nate Stanley finished 23/33 for 260 yards, zero touchdowns, and an interception. He wasn't great -- there were still some missed passes and eaten sacks -- but he (mostly) avoided critical mistakes (the interception come on a pass that bounced off Tyler Goodson's hands) and was able to drop a few absolute dimes in the passing game. As much as anything Stanley and the passing game seemed to be let down by playcalling that resulted in a frankly absurd number of passes at or behind the line of scrimmage. Perhaps Iowa saw something on tape that made them think Purdue was especially vulnerable to bubble screens; they weren't.
After two weeks of getting mercilessly owned by opposing defenses, the Iowa offensive line was better today, but this was hardly a standout performance. The pass blocking, at least, was improved; pockets weren't collapsing on Stanley every other play, which was a welcome change. The interior of the line was improved in that regard, though run blocking still appeared to be a struggle. Then again, very little went right in the run game today, so it was hardly just the fault of Iowa's much-maligned of late interior players.
Also bad news: Brandon Smith got hurt near the end of the game. He appeared to suffer an injury to his lower right leg after a catch late in the fourth quarter. Smith wasn't able to put any weight on the leg after the injury and had to be helped off the field; he was seen on crutches after the game. An injury like that would be bad news at any time, but it was especially cruel today, as Smith had produced arguably his best day as a Hawkeye: 9 receptions (a career high) for 106 yards (also a career high), including a few truly magnificent grabs. Coupled with his spectacular touchdown reception against Penn State last week and it's clear that Smith was playing the best football of his Iowa career right now; losing him to injury is a really big blow. Hopefully the injury isn't too serious and he's able to return this season. We'll update his status when we know more.
Brandon Smith was the star of the offense today, although Ihmir Smith-Marsette had a brilliant one-handed catch as part of his three receptions for 57 yard performance and Nico Ragaini hauled in six receptions for 31 yards. Tyler Goodson produced more catching the ball (2 receptions, 38 yards) than he did running it (5 carries, 6 yards), though he did have Iowa's first touchdown of the game. Tyrone Tracy also had three receptions for 28 yards.
Iowa's defense had little trouble stifling Purdue's anemic run game; the Boilermakers managed just 33 yards on 18 carries. Purdue had far more success attacking Iowa through the air: Jack Plummer finished 30/50 for 327 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception. He got off a slow start and struggled again in the third quarter, but he was brilliant in the second and fourth quarters. His main target was freshman receiver David Bell, who was unstoppable for much of the game; he finished with 13 receptions (!) for 197 yards (!!) and a touchdown. Purdue coach Jeff Brohm went back to the same well that had served him so well in his wins over Iowa last two years; that is, find a weak link in the defense and exploit it ruthlessly. Today the weak link was Matt Hankins on David Bell and once Purdue identified that, they went to work. Iowa subbed in Riley Moss for Matt Hankins in the second half and had better luck stopping that connection -- for a while. Bell and Plummer blew up again in the fourth quarter during Purdue's comeback bid. They're both freshmen, so Iowa fans should get used to seeing them for the next few seasons. Gulp.
It was a hit-or-miss day for the Iowa defense. For all the yards (and pair of touchdowns) they gave up in the second and fourth quarters, they managed stops in the first and third quarters. And for the first time since the Iowa State game, the defense was able to force multiple turnovers, intercepting Plummer once and forcing (and recovering) a fumble in the first half to halt a Purdue scoring drive. The pass rush didn't force too many sacks, but was able to collapse the pocket frequently; unfortunately, Plummer was also effective at eluding the rush and getting the ball to open receivers in many of those situations.
And we'd be remiss to not mention Keith Duncan, who was the clear hero of the first half, when Iowa's offense made three trips into scoring territory and stalled out each time. Duncan nailed all three field goals then and added a fourth in the second half. That gave him 17 (!) made field goals on the season so far. It's immensely frustrating that Iowa isn't able to finish more drives with touchdowns, but it's at least a relief to have a kicker as reliable as Duncan to take (and make) those field tries when the offense does run into the invisible force field that prevents them scoring touchdowns. Thank you, Keith.
After two gut-wrenching losses, Iowa needed to stop the bleeding more than anything and get a win today. They did that -- just. If you still have multiple concerns about this team, well, that's eminently fair. A performance like today's certainly did nothing to dispel those concerns. It was one thing for the offense to flail impotently against Michigan and Penn State, teams with potent defenses who have put opponents in vise grips for most of the season. To struggle so ineffectually against a Purdue defense that ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in many categories? That's much harder to explain away and speaks to the clear issues that exist within this offense. Issues that the Iowa coaches are running out of time to fix, with five games to go in the season. For today we'll take the win.