#10 Iowa 27, #9 Iowa State 17: Punt To Win

By RossWB on September 11, 2021 at 11:20 pm
© Bryon Houlgrave/The Register via Imagn Content Services, LLC

The storyline that was expected by many to play out today was one of streaks snapped, monkeys removed from backs, and the confirmation of Iowa State's status as a legitimate contender this season. About all that... Iowa had a few other ideas. Iowa State's losing streak against Iowa is now up to six games, with Matt Campbell's personal losing streak to Kirk Ferentz up to five games. That "can't beat Iowa" monkey? Still firmly attached to his black shirt-clad back. Iowa State's status as a legitimate contender? They may rebound in Big 12 play, but watching them get punked by Iowa's defense for three-and-a-half hours did not do their national reputation any favors. No matter what they wear, no matter what ranking they have next to their name, no matter how much hype they have behind them... it turns out they're still Iowa State. (And I'm exceedingly happy to have been proven wrong about this prediction.) 

This game was one of the most Ferentz-y games imaginable, in a series that's had plenty of extremely Kirk Ferentz-y games over the last 23 years. Game defined by defense? Absolutely. Special teams play critical to the outcome? Uh huh. Turnovers of the utmost importance? An emphatic yes. Both teams entered this game with strong defensive reputations; I don't know if Iowa State's was particularly injured by this loss considering how ineffectual Iowa's offense was for much of the game (and we'll talk about that in a bit), but Iowa's defensive reputation was certainly burnished by this performance. They were simply magnificent in this game. 

Iowa State finished with 339 yards of offense, but almost half of that came in the fourth quarter during a half-assed comeback effort led by back-ups after Iowa had opened up a three-score lead on the Cyclones. Iowa's defense bludgeoned an experienced Cyclone offense led by the much-hyped trio of QB Brock Purdy, RB Breece Hall, and TE Charlie Kolar for the better part of three quarters. Purdy went 13/27 (48%) for 138 yards, 0 TD, and 3 INT and posted a ghastly QB rating of 16.2. He Austen Arnaud'd the shit out of this game, in other words. That QB rating is the worst of his career by a mile. Remember, he was actually pretty good against Iowa the first time he played them in 2019 -- 24/34 (70.6%), 276 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT. That Purdy was nowhere to be found today. He was harassed by a swarming Iowa defensive front that forced him to rush his throws (especially as the game wore on) and harried him into bad decisions. It was a defense that smothered receivers, smothered the line of scrimmage, and got its hands on several passes, re-directing them harmlessly to the turf -- or into the waiting hands of another Iowa defender. Purdy's terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day ended early in the fourth quarter, when he was replaced by backup Hunter Dekkers for the remainder of the game.

Breece Hall's day wasn't as disastrous as Purdy's -- he finished with 16 carries for 69 yards (4.3 ypc) and a touchdown, as well as 24 yards on four receptions. Oh, and one very very very costly fumble. Hall's fumble with Iowa State backed up to its own goal line broke the game wide open. Jestin Jacobs made a textbook-perfect tackle on Hall and managed to punch the ball free in the process; the ball then bounced perfectly into the waiting arms of Jack Campbell, who half-ran, half-fell into the end zone for a touchdown. That score turned a tense 14-10 game into a 21-10 game and provided Iowa with the breathing room of a two-score lead. I think the fumble itself was more the result of a great defensive play by Jacobs than a poor job holding onto the ball by Hall, but it will still go down as his fumble and it was unquestionably a major point in the game. 

Iowa State's next two drives ended in interceptions as their offense continued to unravel against the ironclad Iowa defense. The first drive lasted just two plays before a Purdy pass went through the hands of an ISU receiver and landed in Seth Benson's hands instead. After a four-play drive netted Iowa -8 yards (ugh), Caleb Shudak split the uprights with a 51-yard bomb of a field goal to extend Iowa's lead to 24-10. Iowa State's subsequent drive lasted six plays and made it all the way into Iowa territory before it ended the exact same way: with a Purdy interception. This time Joe Evans got serious air under him on a leap and got a hand on Purdy's pass, sending the ball careening into the mitts of Matt Hankins, who had a weaving run-back for 41 yards to the Iowa State 22-yard line. Iowa had to settle for another field goal after that, but a 27-10 lead did open up a three-score lead that effectively put the game on ice, even with most of a quarter to go. 

That third quarter was quite possibly Phil Parker's magnum opus as defensive coordinator at Iowa, his Mona Lisa or his Rubber Soul. Iowa needed the defense to play lights-out today to win this game and for the better part of four quarters they did exactly that. And no part of their performance was better than what they did in the third quarter. 

A busted coverage had led to a 49-yard pass play from Purdy to Austin Wilson that set up an Iowa State touchdown right before halftime. That cut Iowa's lead from 14-3 to 14-10 and gave Iowa State some good momentum heading into halftime. Worse, they were set to get the ball to start the second half. The Iowa defense, directed by Phil Parker, instead used the third quarter to squeeze the life out of Iowa State. 

  • first drive: 5 plays, 23 yards, punt; out of halftime Iowa State got the ball at their own 25-yard line and managed to string together a few first downs and made it to around midfield before the Iowa defense forced a punt after a 2-yard Purdy run and a pair of incomplete passes.
  • second drive: 3 plays, -12 yards, punt; this was the Iowa defensive front seven flexing all over Iowa State, with three consecutive tackles for loss, including back-to-back sacks, first a combo sack by Jack Campbell and Deontae Craig and then a follow-up by Joe Evans.
  • third drive: 1 play, fumble, defensive TD; this was the Jacobs forced fumble and the Campbell scoop-and-score
  • fourth drive: 2 plays, 1 yard, interception; this was Purdy-to-Seth Benson
  • fifth drive: 6 plays, 29 yards, interception; Iowa State got a few first downs before Evans' pressure deflected the ball to Hankins for another turnover

That quarter had everything that makes this Iowa defense so good: pressure from the front four, do-everything linebackers, and a ballhawking secondary. It was a dominant display from a unit that looked impressive from the jump this season and has managed to look even better as the season progresses. In Phil We Trust. 

Aside from the defense, the other major positive for Iowa in this game was special teams, where Levar Woods' charges continue to excel. The star of the special teams and -- arguably -- Iowa's player of the game was our punting god, Tory Taylor. Taylor posted a ridiculous stat line: eight punts for 409 yards, a sizzling 51.1 yards per punt average, with a long of 69 yards (nice). Five of those eight punts were deposited inside the 20-yard line and even that undersells it, because four of those five punts inside the 20-yard line were actually inside the 10-yard line. Taylor's booming punts and precise spin allowed him to pin Iowa State deep time after time, giving Iowa a massive advantage in the field position game. If Iowa's defense can force an opponent to move 90+ yards to score, that's a battle that they will the vast majority of the time. 

But there were special teams standouts beyond Taylor, too. Charlie Jones was once again a key factor in the return game; he had a pair of kick returns for 44 yards as well as four punt returns for 53 yards, including a long of 24 yards. Taylor did his part in pinning Iowa State deep in their own territory, while Jones did his part by trying to give the Iowa offense the best field position possible to start its drives. (That the offense was unable to do more with that starting field position was frustrating, but not Jones' fault in any way.) 

Shouts to kicker Caleb Shudak as well. He regularly boomed his kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks, preventing any possibility of an Iowa State return. And he was a valuable weapon as a placekicker as well. Officially he went 2/3 on field goals and while the one miss was a horrendous shank that was nowhere near the goalposts, it also wasn't really his fault; a bad snap doomed that kick before Shudak's toe even touched the ball. He redeemed himself by drilling a 51-yard field goal in the fourth quarter (after that aforementioned Iowa drive that lost 8 yards on 4 plays) that increased Iowa's lead from 21-10 to 24-10. The three points were helpful, but the most important part of that kick might have been simply making it and preventing Iowa State from taking over near midfield, down just 11 points. That might have given them a boost in their comeback efforts; instead, Shudak's kick helped slam the door on them. 

Of course, said door could have been slammed shut before that point if Iowa's offense had been able to put together more than one good quarter of work in this game. As wonderful as it was to get this win and spoil Iowa State's party, we can't overlook the fact that the offense was pretty woeful for most of this game. Overall, Iowa finished with 11 first downs and 173 yards of offense (2.88 yards per play). Spencer Petras finished 11/21 through the air for 106 yards, 1 TD, and 0 INT. On the ground, Iowa finished with 67 yards and a touchdown on 39 carries (1.7 ypc). That is some dreadful offense, by and large. 

Iowa got away with that level of offense because a) the defense was outstanding and b) the defense and special teams consistently gave Iowa incredible starting field position. Not counting the drives to end each half, Iowa started in ISU territory on five of their 13 drives in this game. They got a total of 13 points from those five drives and ending up punting on two of those drives that started on the ISU side of the field. One of those punts did end up pinning Iowa State on their own 6-yard line and turned into the Jacobs-Campbell fumble-touchdown sequence -- this game was a great example for the "punting is winning" file -- but still. With some more effective offense, Iowa could have put this game far out of reach in the third quarter. Hell, more effective offense in the fourth quarter -- even just gaining a first down or two -- would have been a welcome sight and allowed Iowa to run the clock out. The offense today was unable to muster that level of competence, unfortunately. 

This was obviously a game where the key line item on the Iowa offensive gameplan was "Don't Fuck Up." And, hey, they did not do that. Turnovers killed Iowa State dead in this game and Iowa's offense took care of the ball well for the entire game. Spencer Petras did not throw any interceptions and neither Tyler Goodson nor Ivory Kelly-Martin put the ball on the ground. (Well, Kelly-Martin did, but he was clearly down before the ball came out, as replay showed.) 

But at some point Iowa's offense is going to need to carry its load in a game. There were a few nice flashes in this game, mainly in the second quarter, when Iowa put together a pair of scoring drives capped off with touchdowns. The second drive, a 10-play, 71-yard drive shortly before halftime was particularly impressive. Petras spread the ball around, put the ball in places for his receivers to get them, and even dialed up an absolute laser to Charlie Jones for a 26-yard touchdown pass. Kelly-Martin had a pair of 8-yard runs on the drive, which was pretty good by Iowa's standards for the game. Outside of those two drives, though, the Iowa offense was downright moribund. Despite starting the ball right outside Iowa State's red zone on back-to-back possessions in the third quarter, Iowa wasn't able to turn either drive into a touchdown. That was... frustrating. Not getting first downs to bleed clock in the fourth down was... frustrating. With a defense this good and special teams weapons like Taylor, Jones, and Shudak, Iowa doesn't need a great offense to be a very good team this year. But they do need an offense that can at least hold its own and carry more of its weight than we saw today. 

But just like last week, I refuse to end this recap on a downer note. Iowa just won The Biggest Cy-Hawk Game of All-Time. On Iowa State's home turf. With a national audience watching. And they won comfortably and decisively, thanks to the key tenets of Ferentzball: defense, special teams, and turnovers. Beating Iowa State is always fun. Beating Iowa State on the road in a Top 10 game on national TV is really, really, really fun. 

It always is, always was, and always will be a Hawkeye State. And after a dominating win over a Top 10 opponent, there's only one thing to do: 


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