There were plenty of reasons to be worried about this game. Iowa needing to follow up a draining game like last week's thriller against #4 Penn State was cause for concern; the last time Iowa beat a Top 5 team (#3 Ohio State in 2017), they followed that up with an absolute thud against Wisconsin, losing 38-14 in a game where the only Iowa touchdowns were scored by Josh Jackson on interception returns. And we also knew that Iowa has had tremendous struggles against Purdue ever since Jeff Brohm took over in 2017, with the Boilermakers going 3-1 against Iowa since then.
We were right to be worried.
Iowa looked hungover from last week's momentous win early on, with Spencer Petras throwing an interception on a tipped ball from a pass thrown high on Iowa's first drive of the game. The defense forced a punt on that drive... which was the last time they would force a punt until late in the fourth quarter. Purdue's six drives in-between those punts:
- missed 32-yard field goal
- made 31-yard field goal
- fumble (a touchback after a Purdue player inadvertently threw the ball at the pylon when trying to score)
The defense just Could. Not. Get. Stops. Purdue finished 9/16 on third downs in this game, but they were 8/12 on third downs in the competitive portion of the game. They just consistently converted on short-, medium-, and long-distance third down tries. That kept drives humming along, which did two things -- it helped wear down the Iowa defense and, well, it kept Purdue's offense on the field, which eventually led to points on most of their possessions.
Purdue used three quarterbacks in the game (Aidan O'Connell, Jack Plummer, and Austin Burton), which kept Iowa's defense off-balance, but most of the damage was done by O'Connell, who cut Iowa's defense to shreds all afternoon long. He finished 30/40 (75%) for 375 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions. His main target? You know who that was. Noted Hawkeye-killer David Bell set Iowa's much-hyped secondary on fire and then pissed all over the ashes, just as he's done all three years he's played Iowa.
- 2019: 13 receptions, 197 yards, 1 TD
- 2020: 13 receptions, 121 yards, 3 TD
- 2021: 11 receptions, 240 yards, 1 TD
Bell was matched up with Iowa's top cornerback and the reigning Big Ten Player of the Week in Matt Hankins... and he stuffed Hankins in a locker for three hours. Bell beat Iowa short, he beat Iowa deep, he beat Iowa everywhere on the field. Iowa, meanwhile, did not make any effective adjustments to try and slow down Bell, instead remaining in their standard zone coverage schemes and providing plenty of soft cushions. Iowa's defense is a zone-based defense to its core, so they're not going to become a man-to-man defense on the fly, but not having any sort of a Plan B when your Plan A is getting demolished is dangerous business.
The breakdowns in coverage were also a result of the struggles by Iowa to generate a pass rush. The Iowa defensive line was a great story early in the season, but they've struggled to even disrupt opposing quarterbacks the last few weeks, let alone sack or hurry them (with a few exceptions). Both Penn State and Purdue have used quick-passing schemes, but there were also several plays in this game where O'Connell had multiple seconds in a clean pocket to find a receiver. Without an effective pass rush, almost any secondary is going to get chewed up and spit out.
The question looming over Iowa for much of the season has been: "What happens when the turnovers stop flowing? Can the offense produce enough to win games?" The answer today was an emphatic and resounding no.
Iowa was held to just seven points, their lowest total at home since 2012. The offense accumulated a grand total of... 271 yards on 4.4 yards per play. The Hawkeye offense had two reasonably good drives on the day, both in the first half. The first went 68 yards on 17 plays and resulted in a shockingly missed field goal by Caleb Shudak (in hindsight, a strong early indicator that it wasn't going to be Iowa's day). The second was Iowa's very next drive, a 9-play, 80-yard drive that resulted in Iowa's lone touchdown of the day, a 3-yard run by Ivory Kelly-Martin. After that 80-yard drive, Iowa gained 84 yards... for the rest of the game.
- 2 plays, -2 yards (kneel down to end the first half)
- 4 plays, 16 yards (punt)
- 3 plays, -10 yards (punt)
- 4 plays, 9 yards (turnover on downs)
- 8 plays, 51 yards (interception)
- 1 play, 0 yards (interception)
- 6 plays, 20 yards (interception)
I don't think "shitshow" is a strong enough word to describe the play on that side of the ball after Kelly-Martin's touchdown run. The offensive line was a sieve, especially on the right side of the line, which was routinely caved in by Purdue defensive end George Karlaftis. Karlaftis was officially only credited with one tackle for loss and three QB hurries, but anyone who watched that game can attest to the impact that he had for Purdue's defense. He was the tornado from Twister out there and Justin Britt and Nick DeJong were the cows swept up in the wind.
Spencer Petras finished with four interceptions and while several of those interceptions came late in the game when Iowa was furiously trying for any sort of a comeback, they were also terrible throws and that showed some lousy decision-making. He's avoided throws like that for the most part over the last two seasons, but he did not today and it doomed Iowa's already-thin hopes of a comeback.
But the lion's share of the blame for Iowa's dumpster fire of an offense in this game should not fall on Petras or DeJong or Britt or any of Iowa's players. The lion's share of the blame should fall on Iowa's coaches, particularly the Ferentzes. They're the ones who developed a dismal gameplan, they're the ones who called miserable plays, especially in the red zone, they're the ones whose predictability was exploited again and again by Purdue. Nor is this a one-game problem either -- practically nothing went right today, but Iowa's offense has been a hot mess for most of the season. It's hard to imagine it improving much in the span of two weeks -- especially when Iowa is set to face one of the Big Ten's best defenses in Wisconsin in two weeks -- but they need to figure something out and they need to do it pretty quickly, or this season could careen further off the rails.
Finally, kudos to Purdue as well -- they were excellent in this game and the 24-7 scoreline frankly probably sells their performance a bit short. Iowa played badly, but in large part because Purdue forced them to play badly. The Boilermakers looked hungrier, faster, stronger, and smarter in this game and they looked far more prepared on both offense and defense than Iowa was. They looked like a team that had used their bye week well and executed a strategy very effectively.
Speaking of bye weeks, we can only hope Iowa uses their impending bye week half as effectively as Purdue did. In some ways, having a bye week next week is a welcome relief -- Iowa needs an extra week to get a few players healthier and they clearly need to go back to the drawing board and work on several things (especially the offensive line and the playcalling) to try and find improvements for the final five games of the season. On the other hand, a bye week next week also means sitting with this wet turd of a loss for two weeks, which is going to be pretty miserable. We rode the euphoric highs last week; now we get to experience the crushing lows instead. What a mess.