Iowa 7, South Dakota State 3: Punting (Really) Is Winning

By RossWB on September 3, 2022 at 4:56 pm
Us too, guy. Us too.
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The last time Iowa beat an FCS team by single digits? They won the Orange Bowl. 

The last time Iowa scored seven points or fewer and won? Well... 

The won 10 games and a share of the Big Ten title that season. 

Does that mean this year's Hawkeye squad is destined to shake off this panic-inducing win over South Dakota State and achieve big things? No. Absolutely not. These are just amusing, fluky coincidences. 

At this point, the only thing the '22 Iowa team might have in common with the '04 and '09 vintages is an airtight Hawkeye defense with a superstar linebacker (Chad Greenway in '04, Pat Angerer in '09, Jack Campbell now), a ferocious pass rush (Iowa's dynamic defensive line combined for four sacks and eight QB hurries today), and a no-fly-zone secondary that smothers opposing passing attacks (no interceptions today, but eight passes broken up while holding the Jackrabbits to a 10/26 showing for 87 yards through the air). We certainly want to see how they perform against non-FCS offenses, but... I think it's fair to be bullish on their prospects.

They absolutely smothered an SDSU offense that has some very capable weapons, limiting them to a grand total of 120 yards and 2.1 yards per play. The Jackrabbits ran eight plays on Iowa's side of the field for the entire game -- and all but one of those plays came after a Spencer Petras interception set them up with the ball at the Iowa 38-yard line. Even then, the Iowa defense limited them to 11 yards over the next six plays, forcing them into a 44-yard field goal. Jack Campbell led the way with 11 tackles (0.5 TFL) and a QB hurry, but Logan Lee had six tackles, including 1.5 sacks, while Joe Evans had four tackles, including two sacks. Noah Shannon had a fairly quiet day on the stat sheet -- tackles, two QB hurries -- but he was a consistent threat on Iowa's defensive line and when he wasn't directly menacing SDSU players he was one of the key glue guys occupying opponents and freeing up his teammates to make big stops. And in the secondary shouts to Quinn Schulte, who had four pass break-ups and smashed the hit stick on a few occasions, and Terry Roberts, who had a pair of pass break-ups while replacing the suspended Jermari Harris. 

About the only thing the Iowa defense couldn't do was force a turnover, though they did force SDSU into 11 punts on the day. But speaking of punting... the Iowa defense was excellent today, but they aided in their efforts by Tory Taylor, whose booming, precision punts consistently backed the Jackrabbits deep into their own territory. Taylor averaged 47.9 yards per kick and placed seven (!) kicks in inside the 20-yard line. Even that might undersell his efforts -- five of his punts were downed inside the 10-yard line, with three being downed inside the 5-yard line. Taylor -- and his ace coverage team -- was phenomenal today. In fact, punting really was winning today, because one of Taylor's killer punts was fielded at the 1-yard line by Cooper DeJean. One play later, Jack Campbell did this: 

That safety ended up being the winning points in the game. 

The "drive of the game"? That Taylor punt. 

FACTS ONLY. 

The only negative of Taylor's afternoon punting the ball -- aside from a pair of second half touchbacks -- was the fact his volume of punting. Our Aussie hero punted the ball ten times in this game and he was called upon so often because the Iowa offense was a... "gaping chest wound"? "Mouth of broken teeth?" "handful of mangled fingers?" I don't know, choose the description that works best for you. But as terrible days for the Iowa offense goes, this one was way, way, way up there. And we've certainly seen some doozies over the years. 

Normal folks might look at this score and think "Jeez, Iowa only scored one touchdown against South Dakota Staet?" The real ones -- Iowa fans and the absolute sickos who watched this prolific puntfest despite a vested rooting interest -- will know that a) that's dead wrong and b) it was so much worse. Iowa scored seven points, yes, but they did not cross the goal line. In fact, only once all day were they even close to the SDSU end zone. Instead, Iowa scored seven points via a field goal and not one but two safeties. Which is a completely normal way to score seven points in a football game, right? I don't know what we're even mad about. To recap: the Iowa defense (four points, via two safeties) outscored both South Dakota State (three points) and the Iowa offense (also three points). 

There have, technically, been worse outings than this for an Iowa offense -- a few especially hapless trips to Madison spring to mind -- but Iowa has rarely looked this inept on offense at home, especially given the caliber of opposition. South Dakota State is a very good FCS team... but they're also still an FCS team. And yet they held Iowa to 166 yards of offense and 2.7 yards per play. Arland Bruce IV made some nice plays and led Iowa with five catches for 68 yards and Leshon Williams was able to grind out 72 yards (on 24 carries...) for the ground game, but that's what passes for highlights for Iowa on that side of the ball. 

An offseason that featured talk about a new and improved Iowa offense -- one that had been "simplified" -- and a new and improved Spencer Petras -- who was recovered from his injuries, 10 lbs lighter, and the recipient of tutoring from various sources (including the Manning Passing Academy) -- resulted in an offense that was... more or less the same eye-melting shitshow that Iowa fans watched last year. It certainly didn't help that Iowa was without two of its top three receivers (Keagan Johnson and Nico Ragaini missed today due to injury) and one of its top running backs (Gavin Williams also missed the game), but those absences can't explain all of Iowa's issues on offense.

The play design was still thoroughly uninspired and the playcalling wasn't any better. Whatever Iowa's coaching staff is doing in practice to help players execute well isn't exactly working, either. Petras's mechanics remain a mess (especially when even the slightest bit pressured), which was evident on the abysmal interception he threw near the end of the first half. His reads are still haphazard at best, frequently trying to laser a ball into double coverage or overthrowing a covered receiver instead of seeing an open option in a different part of the field. This was also a day to forget for the offensive line, which struggled to handle SDSU's pressure and could not generate consistent push in the run game. One game is not quite reason to hammer the panic button, but there is definitely a lot to be worried about with this offensive line. If they don't show considerable improvement in a hurry, there's no hope at all for this offense. 

A horrendously poor display on offense didn't prevent Iowa from winning today -- but only because of superhuman efforts by the Iowa defense and (most of) the special teams. (Taylor was a superstar, though the jury's still out on the other part of Iowa's kicking game. New kicker Aaron Blom went 1/2 on field goals today, missing a 40-yard try, but nailing a 46 yard attempt.) If Iowa has to get efforts that good out of the defense and special teams to win every week, it's going to be tough sledding. Two excellent units can only cover up for one dreadful unit for so long. Iowa doesn't need a great offense to be successful, but it would be nice to at least have a decent offense to fall back on -- and 166 yards and no touchdowns is a long, long way from "decent." 

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