Iowa games are rarely museum-quality in terms of their aesthetics, unless your tastes lean towards punting, ferocious defense, and copious checkdown passes. (This is a judgment-free zone, friends.) But even by Iowa's usual standards, today's 24-14 victory over Colorado State was, as Jim Ross might describe it, "bowling shoe ugly." Iowa struggled to sustain drives, struggled to get key stops (at times), and even had some uncharacteristic struggles on special teams. But "ugly but effective" is the defining motto of the Kirk Ferentz era at Iowa for a reason and that's exactly what this game was: pretty ugly, but also effective because at the end of the game Iowa is still 4-0.
The first half was the uglier (and less effective) of the two for Iowa today, by far. Iowa trailed at the break for only the second time in their 10-game winning streak and the first time since a narrow 14-13 deficit to Illinois in the penultimate game of Iowa's 2020 regular season. Why was Iowa losing? They were losing because they were getting out-Iowa'd by Colorado State.
The Rams' defensed swarmed Iowa and stymied the offense for part of the half, forcing punts on three of Iowa's first four drives. Their touchdowns were set up by short fields, something that's been a hallmark of Iowa in many of their recent wins. The first touchdown drive came after an exchange of punts between the Rams and Hawkeyes ended with Tory Taylor uncharacteristically shanking a punt that went just 22 yards and set the Rams up at the Iowa 35-yard line. CSU converted not one, not two, but three third-and-longs, with the last one going for a touchdown. CSU's second touchdown drive came a few plays later, after forcing an interception (Petras' first of the season) on a screen pass from Spencer Petras to Tyrone Tracy. Robert Floyd took the ball away from Tracy and returned it 62 yards the other way, setting up the Rams at the Iowa 23-yard line. Losing the field position battle? Short fields created by special teams and defense? That's what Iowa usually does to other teams, not what happens to them. Couple that with uncharacteristically poor third-down defense (CSU converted 9/13 third down tries in the first half!) and you have a recipe for losing football if you're Iowa.
Fortunately, Iowa spent the second half looking a lot more like Iowa, at least on defense and special teams. Colorado State went just 2/10 on third downs in the second half and was unable to sustain drives. The Rams couldn't run the ball (22 carries for 25 yards) and couldn't throw the ball either (6/17 for 65 yards), thanks to an Iowa defensive line that was best described as "ferocious." They only got credit for two sacks in the second half (three for the game) and five tackles for loss (10 for the game), but there were several other plays that officially went for no gain or minimal gain.
Two of the biggest moments of the second half -- and two of the biggest reasons Iowa won the game -- came via the defense as well. Down 14-7 early in the third quarter, a punt by Tory Taylor pinned CSU inside their own 20 and things got even worse after a holding penalty on first down. Iowa's defense smelled blood at that point and two plays later, on 2nd and 23, Yahya Black forced a fumble that landed at the CSU 6-yard line, where Jack Campbell promptly fell on it. Even Iowa's offense couldn't waste field position that good and Brian Ferentz promptly dialed up one of the niftier plays of the season:
TRICKSY, TRICKSY HAWKEYES
The other big moment came after Iowa had taken a 21-14 lead via a 27-yard Spencer Petras pass to a W I D E O P E N Sam LaPorta on a drive that was set up by special teams. Charlie Jones dodged and weaved through the Colorado State punt coverage team on a 38-yard return (negating a booming 56-yard punt by the Rams' superb punter, Ryan Stonehouse) that allowed Iowa's drive to start at the CSU 41. Four plays later? TOUCHDOWN IOWA.
Unfortunately, Sam LaPorta celebrated that touchdown by -- gasp -- spinning the football in the end zone. Apparently that's a point of emphasis for the officials this season (WHYYYYYY) and he was duly called for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. That penalty, combined with an uncharacteristically poor kickoff by Caleb Shudak that landed out of bounds, enabled Colorado State to start their drive at the 50-yard line. Would a short(ish) field lead to another Rams touchdown? Not against this Iowa defense. Despite a 7-yard gain on first down, CSU went four-and-out on the drive as Iowa's defensive front absolutely stoned them in short yardage. A QB sneak attempt on third down went nowhere and a hand-off to the running back on fourth down was equally ineffective. Iowa didn't score on the ensuing drive, but CSU's spirit seemed fairly broken at that point and a few drives later Iowa was able to secure a field goal that gave them a two-score lead and -- finally -- some breathing room. Defense and special teams taketh in the first half, but they giveth in the second.
As usual, there were plenty of standout performers on the defense -- Logan Lee, Lukas Van Ness, and John Waggoner each got credited with a sack, while Zach VanValkenburg didn't get credited with a sack, but did have 2.5 TFL -- but we have to give a special shout-out to Jack Campbell, who was everywhere on the field today. He finished with 18 (!) tackles, including seven solo stops. He also got credit for two pass breakups and the aforementioned fumble recovery. He was a beast. Seth Benson (11 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1 QB hurry) and Jestin Jacobs (8 tackles) also had solid games.
On the other side of the ball, it was an unusual game for Iowa's offense. Explosive plays were there for Iowa's offense... but nothing else was. Keagan Johnson had not one, but two 40+ yard receptions, including a 43-yard touchdown catch that was one of the best passes Petras has made in his Iowa career.
Iowa also got a 34-yard reception from Nico Ragaini, a 27-yard catch from LaPorta, a 22-yard reception from Tyler Goodson, who also had a 27-yard run. Those six plays accounted for 202 yards. Iowa's other 49 offensive plays amassed a grand total of... 76 yards. That's 1.6 yards per play, which is horrific. It was truly exciting to see a big play component as part of Iowa's offense today -- plays like that have been woefully missing all year -- but that handful of plays was also pretty much all the Iowa offense did today. We want to see more big plays, yes, but the offense also needs to be able to move the ball more consistently as well.
At this point, one-third of the way through the regular season, it seems more than fair to be concerned about the offense. The games against Kent State and Colorado State were supposed to be "get right" games for the offense, opportunities against lesser opposition to get things clicking that hadn't worked against Indiana or Iowa State. Not much of Iowa's offense is exactly "clicking" at the moment. The offensive line is really struggling to perform at a good level with any sort of consistency; today they seemed better in pass protection than run blocking (though when they made errors in pass protection, they were really bad). Goodson almost never had time or space to run. Nor is the predictability of Iowa's playcalling isn't helping matters -- it was no surprised that Iowa's offense showed (fleeting) signs of life once they broke tendency and passed the ball on first down -- as Iowa's offensive line has enough problems right now without having to try and open holes or keep a clean pocket when the defense knows exactly what is coming.
That said, there are still worse things than continuing to find ways to win ugly. You could, you know, lose. Two of Iowa's fellow Top 10 teams, Texas A&M and Clemson, did just that. Border rivals Wisconsin and Minnesota dropped games as favorites today (the Gophers were 30-point favorites and fell victim to #MACtion). Iowa State dropped another game, too. Iowa avoided falling into any of those open manhole covers, even after a first half that left them primed and ready to do so. Just win, baby.
GO 4-0 AWESOME