Iowa Football And The Secrets Behind Those Magical Top 5 Wins

By RossWB on September 29, 2022 at 4:11 pm
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© Bryon Houlgrave/The Register / USA TODAY NETWORK
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You're probably aware that Iowa football is hosting another Top 5-ranked team this weekend, with #4 Michigan (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten) coming to Kinnick Stadium on Saturday (11 AM CT, FOX). And you've probably seen this stat going around: 

Or maybe you saw this tweet: 

Iowa has been very good against Top-5 opponents at Kinnick Stadium over the last 15 years. Of course, those were very different seasons with very different Iowa teams. Can those games tell us anything about this year's Top-5 showdown? 

2008: Iowa 24, #3 Penn State 23 

My slightly spicy take is that 2008 Iowa is no worse than the third-best team of the Ferentz Era, even if the final record (9-4) doesn't entirely support that. But they had the best running back of the Ferentz Era (Shonn Greene), the second-best offensive line of the Ferentz Era (behind only 2002), and an absolutely stacked defense. What held them back? The QB musical chairs between Ricky Stanzi and Jake Christensen at the start of the season and a poor record in close games. But winning nine games despite going 2-4 in one-score games is actually impressive; Iowa usually only wins 9+ games when they have a particularly good record in one-score games. At its best, this team was an absolute monster. 

TURNOVER MARGIN: 0 (2 forced, 2 given away)
TOTAL OFFENSE: 272 (Iowa) 289 (PSU)
BIG PLAYS: none, really (a 27-yard TD pass to DJK was Iowa's longest play of the game)
RED ZONE: Iowa 3/3 (2 TD, 1 FG) PSU (5/5 2 TD, 3 FG -- all inside Iowa 15)

The turnover margin in this game only ended up a wash because Penn State was credited with turnovers on their final two possessions of the game (although their final "possession" was a fumble on the kickoff after Daniel Murray's game-winning field goal). That said, Iowa needed a key Penn State turnover (a fourth quarter interception by Tyler Sash) to set up that eventual Murray field goal. 

The big key for Iowa in this game was a defense that stood firm in the red zone. Penn State had two drives that lasted over eight minutes apiece and involved 16+ plays and covered nearly 80 yards -- and both ended in field goals. All told, Penn State kicked field goals three times inside the Iowa 15-yard line. That kept the score just close enough for Iowa's comeback effort to prevail in the second half. 

2010: #18 Iowa 37, #5 Michigan State 6

The conventional wisdom is that the loss to Wisconsin the week before this game broke the 2010 Iowa team. I think there's merit to that belief -- but there isn't much evidence for it in this game. Iowa's season disintegrated in November, but this was one hell of a last gasp for that campaign. Iowa absolutely beat the brakes off Sparty in this game, right from the jump. 

TURNOVER MARGIN: +3 (3 forced, 0 given away)
TOTAL OFFENSE: 352 (Iowa), 258 (MSU)
BIG PLAYS: 32 yd TD pass to Adam Robinson, 56 yd pass to Allen Reisner, 26 yd run by Stanzi, 66 yd pick-six by Micah Hyde
RED ZONE: Iowa 3/3 (2 TD, 1 FG) MSU 1/1 (1 TD)

Turnovers were a massive part of this game. Kirk Cousins threw interceptions on two of MSU's first three possessions and Iowa turned both of those takeaways into touchdowns. By the time MSU got the ball back after Cousins' second interception they were down 24-0 and the game was effectively over.

That said, while turnovers enabled Iowa to turn the game into a rout, this was also a rare case of the Iowa offense being productive and effective against a Top-5 opponent. Iowa started the game with a 12-play, 80-yard drive that ended in a touchdown and that set the tone for the day. Iowa ended the first half with four offensive scoring drives (three touchdowns, one field goal) and zero punts. This was one of those "the stars align" performances for Iowa that usually happen 1-2 times a season -- only it's a hell of a lot more satisfying when they happen in a game like this than, say, on the road against Maryland or at home against Kent State. 

2016: Iowa 14, #2 Michigan 13

One of the most consistent features of the Ferentz Era is that results or performances one week don't often have much impact on the results or performances the next week -- for good or ill. On the positive side of the ledger, you get a performance like this -- Iowa got bludgeoned into the turf at Happy Valley by Penn State the week before (a 41-14 defeat) and then turned around and produced an epic takedown of the #2-ranked team in the country. See also: that 2010 Michigan State game, which came one week after a devastating 31-30 home defeat to Wisconsin. On the down side, though, Iowa has also often struggled to get a strong showing in one week to carry over to the next -- even against a markedly weaker opponent. See: Iowa vs Purdue after the Penn State game in 2008 (or 2021). Or Iowa vs Wisconsin after the Ohio State game in 2017. 

TURNOVER MARGIN: +1 (2 forced, 1 given away)
TOTAL OFFENSE: 230 (Iowa), 201 (Mich)
BIG PLAYS: Akrum Wadley 27 yd reception, Akrum Wadley 22 yd run
RED ZONE: Iowa 3/3 (1 TD, 2 FG) Mich 2/2 (1 TD, 1 FG)

Did you remember that Iowa actually out-gained Michigan in this game? I did not. This was another game where turnovers played a pivotal role, albeit in a somewhat quieter fashion than other games on this list. Iowa's first takeaway in this game was a fumble recovery on the opening kickoff of the second half; that set Iowa up with good field position, which they turned into a field goal and an 11-10 lead. Their second turnover was an interception in the fourth quarter; Iowa's ensuing possession also ended in an interception, but that ended up being a field position victory for Iowa and Manny Rugamba's interception stopped a potential Michigan scoring drive, which could have made the game 16-11 (or worse), requiring Iowa to get a touchdown on their final drive and denying us Keith Duncan's first heroics. 

But the main takeaway from this game is that it was just an absolutely ferocious performance by the Iowa defense, one of the very best under Phil Parker. They swarmed all over Michigan all night long, stymieing them at almost every turn and holding them to just 201 yards of total offense -- 220 yards below their season average. If there's a spirit animal for 2022 Iowa among these games, it feels like it's probably this game. An Iowa win on Saturday would probably look a lot like this game: smothering defense, timely turnovers, just enough offense, and probably some heroics from a freshman kicker as well. 

2017: #4 Penn State 21, Iowa 19

This is the only game on this list that Iowa did not, in fact, win -- but the mere fact that they even had a chance to win it is a testament to the power of the "Kinnick Stadium against a Top-5 opponent" mojo.

TURNOVER MARGIN: +1 (2 forced, 1 given away)
TOTAL OFFENSE: 273 (Iowa), 579 (PSU)
BIG PLAYS: 3 TD outside the red zone (21 yd TD pass to Easley, 70 yd pass to Wadley, 35 yd Wadley TD run)
RED ZONE: Iowa 0/1 (36 yd FG blocked) PSU 4/5 (2 TD, 2 FG, missed 41 yd... 2 FG from inside Iowa 3)

No, that total offense stat is not a typo -- Penn State really did out-gain Iowa by over 300 yards in this game. You may remember this as the game where Saquon Barkley had over 300 yards and created half of his highlight reel for the season. And yet Penn State still needed a touchdown pass on the final play of the game to actually win the game.

This game was the absolute zenith of Iowa's "bend-don't-break" philosophy on defense -- though they were also aided by some notable red zone cowardice from James Franklin as well. Penn State had five drives make it inside the Iowa red zone -- but only two of them ended in touchdowns. Another ended with a missed 41-yard field goal try. And two ended in made field goals that were essentially just extra point tries -- both were attempted from inside the Iowa 3-yard line. If Franklin is a little bolder and trusts his generally unstoppable offense that night to get just another yard or two, then this game might not go down to the wire. (On the flip side, Franklin also watched Penn State's offense stall out and fail to score on multiple plays in the red zone on those drives and if he tries and fails to score on those red zone attempts -- instead of taking gimme field goals -- maybe Penn State isn't in a position to win at the end of the game.) 

While the Iowa defense was conceding gobs of yards but only a few hard-earned points, the Iowa offense could only succeed through lightning strikes -- all three Iowa touchdowns in the game came via relatively big plays -- a 21-yard scoring pass to Nick Easley, a dazzling 70-yard catch and run by Akrum Wadley, and an also-stunning 35-yard touchdown scamper by Wadley. There was not a lot of sustained or consistent offense from Iowa in this game -- but it turns out you can (mostly) mitigate that if the big plays are big enough. It's hard to see the 2022 Iowa offense pulling off a repeat of this performance, although if the likes of Kaleb Johnson and Arland Bruce IV wanted to use this as their platform for a breakout game, we'd certainly take it.  

2017: Iowa 55, #3 Ohio State 24

This game was basically the 2010 Michigan State game on steroids. I said that was a "the stars align" game the likes of which Iowa often gets 1-2 times per season. This was more like a "the galaxies align" game that Iowa gets maybe once a decade. It was the finest-called game of Brian Ferentz's career (with only the Holiday Bowl win over USC being in the same area code) and one of the most crisply-executed Iowa games of the Ferentz Era. 

TURNOVER MARGIN: +4 (4 forced, 0 given away)
TOTAL OFFENSE: 487 (Iowa), 371 (OSU)
BIG PLAYS: tons...
RED ZONE: Iowa 7/7 (5 TD, 2 FG) OSU 1/1 (1 FG... held to FG in 1Q when game was close)

Again, the main takeaway from this game is just that the Iowa offense was absolutely brilliant in a way that they almost never are. I mean, 500 yards of offense? Against Ohio State?! Completely bonkers stuff. 

That said, the reason this game turned into such a rout was because of Iowa's success in the turnover and red zone efficiency categories. Iowa was +4 in turnover margin, intercepting J.T. Barrett four times. Amani Hooker's pick-six on the opening play of the game set the tone for the entire game and ratcheted the atmosphere in Kinnick Stadium up a few notches. Josh Jackson's interception on Ohio State's final drive of the first half was also huge -- Iowa scored a touchdown on their ensuing drive, which enabled them to go into halftime up 31-17, which felt a lot better than a 24-17 lead. 

In terms of the red zone, Iowa made seven trips into Ohio State's red zone in this game -- and came with points on all seven trips, including five touchdowns. All those touchdowns kept the game from being close and turned into an absolute blowout.  

2021: #3 Iowa 23, #4 Penn State 20

You don't need much help remembering last year's team, do you? Surely not. This game was the high point of the season. Hindsight has robbed it of some of its luster thanks to Iowa's subsequent struggles (especially on offense) and Penn State's stumbles down the stretch, but it's hard to forget the electric feeling this game had while it was going on. 

TURNOVER MARGIN: +3 (4 forced, 1 given away)
TOTAL OFFENSE: 305 (Iowa), 287 (PSU)
BIG PLAYS: 44 yd TD pass to Nico, 42 yd pass to Keagan Johnson
RED ZONE: Iowa 3/4 (1 TD, 2 FG) PSU 4/4 (2 TD, 2 FG)

Again: turnovers to the rescue! Iowa forced four interceptions in this game and while the offense didn't always do much with those takeaways (only one led to points, a 34-yard Caleb Shudak; the others resulted in an Iowa interception and two punts), it at least prevented Penn State from being able to do anything with the ball. 

Iowa also had some very timely big plays on offense. A 42-yard pass play to Keagan Johnson in the fourth quarter eventually led to another Shudak field goal. A beautifully called and perfectly executed 44-yard pass play to Nico Ragaini in the fourth quarter wound up being the game-winning touchdown for Iowa. Those two pass plays accounted for over 25% of Iowa's offense for the entire game. 

Like the 2016 Michigan game, though, this game was another feather in Phil Parker's cap and wound up being another lockdown performance by the Iowa defense. There's a small asterisk associated with that performance in that Iowa was only really able to put the clamps on their offense after Penn State QB Sean Clifford left the game with an injury, but hey -- you've still got be able to take advantage of things like that when they happen.  


So what are the main lessons we've learned from looking back at those big wins? 

* Turnovers

I'm not sure there's a more crucial stat for Iowa in games like this than turnover margin. They've had a positive turnover margin in five of the six games discussed here -- and they had a neutral turnover margin in the other game. Collectively, Iowa has posted a +12 TO margin in these six games, with 17 forced turnovers against just five conceded turnovers. Turnovers from a ball-hawking defense has been a fixture for Iowa for several years now, but forcing turnovers looks like an absolutely critical component of Iowa's gameplan in big-time games. 

* Bend-Don't-Break Defense (Especially In The Red Zone)

Iowa's defense has been remarkably good at putting an opponent's offense in a vise in games like this and absolutely smothering them and holding them well below their normal outputs in terms of yards and points. But whether they're able to do that or not, one thing that's been consistently important is the Iowa defense's ability to stiffen in the red zone and hold opponents to field goals instead of touchdowns. That keeps the scores low and the margins tight, which often gives Iowa the chance to pull out the win if they can get a few key plays to go their way down the stretch. 

* Kicking Game

The blowouts of Michigan State (2010) and Ohio State (2017) were delightful, but performances like that tend to be outliers for Iowa, especially against Top-5 opponents. Games against those opponents are far more likely to be close, nervy affairs, decided by a few points. And in a game like that, you want to have a kicker who can make kicks under pressure. Daniel Murray and Keith Duncan etched their names into Hawkeye legend with their kicks in 2008 and 2016. Caleb Shudak didn't have a game-winning kick last year, but Iowa certainly needed all three of his field goals to win that very tight game. 

* Splash Plays

This factor doesn't seem quite as critical as the rest, but it can still be very important in big games. Iowa's offense frequently struggles to move the ball with consistency or efficiency and those problems are often exacerbated against the defense of a Top-5 opponent. In those circumstances, it can be very useful to be able to get some chunk plays in the passing game or a big run on the ground. 

Iowa's wins in the 2010 Michigan State game or 2017 Ohio State game were wonderful, but hard (nigh-impossible) to replicate. A more plausible formula for victory looks something like this: smothering defense, a few key turnovers, holding the opponent to field goals in the red zone as much as possible, and maximizing limited opportunities on offense. We'll find out in a few days if Iowa can successfully apply that formula against Michigan again this year. 

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