When you're lost in the desert, even the smallest puddle feels like an ocean. When you're dying of thirst, even the smallest drop feels like a gallon. When you're lost, even the smallest sign that you're back on the path is a massive relief. And when Big Ten teams need to feel good about themselves this year, they look for Northwestern on the schedule. (Unless you're Nebraska, because LOL Nebraska.)
Saturday's game against Northwestern very much was that oasis for Iowa football. After a month that featured a three-game losing streak and zero offensive touchdowns in 8+ quarters, Iowa desperately needed to feel good about themselves again. Northwestern, 1-6 overall and owners of one of the worst defenses in the Big Ten was more than happy to oblige for these Hawkeyes. This was every bit the "get right" game that Iowa so badly needed: they set season-highs in points (33), total offense (393), rushing yards (173), offensive touchdowns (3), and first downs (24). Iowa averaged 6.0 yards per play, 7.3 yards per pass attempt, and 4.8 yards per rush. They looked, for the first time in a very long time, not just competent on offense, but capable. Threatening, even! (At least until they got into the red zone, which we'll discuss in a moment.)
The tone was set early -- Iowa took the opening kickoff and marched down the field to the tune of a nine play, 63-yard drive that took almost five minutes off the clock. It ended in a field goal, but it was still one of Iowa's best opening drives of the season. After forcing a pretty quick punt from Northwestern, Iowa's offense got the ball back -- and immediately went back to work moving down the field. This time a 14-play, 59-yard drive ended in a touchdown, courtesy of a Spencer Petras QB sneak. Through one quarter, Iowa had 120+ yards of offense and a 10-0 lead, their best start of the season by a landslide.
The good drives kept rolling in the second quarter as well -- a 15-play (!), 85-yard (!!) drive ended in another field goal, but a crisp 6-play, 50-yard drive right before halftime resulted in another touchdown and a 20-0 Iowa lead at the break. By the standard of teams that play at a faster clip (and execute better in the red zone), it was the equivalent of a 35-0 lead for the Hawkeyes. That before-halftime drive featured some of Spencer Petras' sharpest play of the season as the offense -- no joke -- looked really good in the two-minute drill. It was capped off by probably Iowa's best red zone play of the season, a dart from Petras to Luke Lachey:
The third quarter brought Iowa's only hiccup on offense -- a three-and-out which resulted in Iowa's only (!) punt of the day. Worse, Tory Taylor produced not just the worst punt of his season, but probably the worst punt of his entire Iowa career -- a badly-shanked boot that went just 12 yards. Clearly he was rusty from the lack of work he was getting in the game. That shanked punt led to good field position for Northwestern and their only good drive of the game ('til garbage time), which they cashed in for a touchdown to cut Iowa's lead to 20-7. But Iowa's offense responded to that offensive spurt by Northwestern with a pair of controlled drives of their own, two 10-play, 5-minute drives that resulted in two field goals -- including a 54-yard bomb from freshman kicker Drew Stevens. (Shouts to Stevens, who made 4/4 field goal tries today and was the consistent weapon at placekicker that Iowa so badly needs.)
A 26-7 lead in the fourth quarter effectively had the game on ice, but Iowa's offense wasn't done yet, either. A short field gave them the ball at the Northwestern 36-yard line; three plays later, the Hawkeyes were in the end zone -- again! -- courtesy a slick (and well-blocked) 23-yard scamper by Arland Bruce IV on a jet sweep.
For the game, Spencer Petras finished 21/30 for 220 yards, one touchdown, and no turnovers. He was also sacked only once and finished with a QB rating of 142.6, his best in a game since... well, the Michigan game (145.0), but most of his production in that game came in garbage time, after Michigan had opened up a 20-0 lead. This was his best showing a competitive game since the wins over Colorado State and Maryland last year. And he did look good in this game -- his throws were more decisive, he spread the ball around (eight different players caught a pass, and six of them had at least two receptions), he avoided dangerous throws (mostly), actually stepped up in the pocket, and even made a few good improv plays. That was all very encouraging to see, given the subpar QB play Iowa has been dealing with all year long.
This was also a breakout performance for Iowa's run game; as a team, Iowa ran the ball 36 times for 173 yards (4.8 yards per carry) and a pair of touchdowns. Kaleb Johnson and Leshon Williams were the two lead backs today and both looked good; Johnson ran for 88 yards on 14 carries (6.3 yards per carry) and showed good vision, the timing to hit the holes at the correct moment, and enough toughness and slickness to shake off the first tackle on several plays. Williams had 43 yards on 11 carries (3.9 yards per carry) and complemented Johnson well. Johnson has looked like the best back on Iowa's team for most of the year; it's nice to see the coaches recognize that and give him a workload that corresponds to that status.
Of course, the improved performance from Petras and the running backs owes a great deal to the much-maligned big fellas up front. Offensive line has not been a strong suit for Iowa this season, with regular struggles both in pass-protection and run-blocking. This wasn't a perfect effort for the big uglies, but it was much-improved from what we've seen from them all season -- they did a solid job of protecting Petras all game and a Petras who isn't running for his life or terrified of the pocket dissolving around him is certainly a much more capable Petras. They also did a much better job of opening up holes in the running game (and getting to the second level) for Johnson and Williams, for the most part. Again, there were still some misses (especially in the end zone), but this was certainly a step forward for the offensive line and there haven't been a lot of those this season.
But about that red zone offense... Iowa entered this game near the bottom of the nation, with just four touchdowns in 12 red zone trips (and just eight scoring trips, period). They added five red zone trips today and while all ended with points (whew!), they still only went 2/5 on touchdowns on those red zone trips. Overall, Iowa ran 17 plays in the red zone (not counting field goal tries), which accounted for 49 yards. That is far better than what Iowa's usual red zone efforts this year have produced. They even threw into the end zone (!) on more than one occasion, which was a nice surprise. But there were still some sludge-y possessions, or series; from first and goal at the Northwestern 8-yard line, they gained just two yards on three plays and had to settle for a field goal. In the fourth quarter, Iowa had first and goal from the Northwestern 5-yard line and three plays resulted in -2 yards. There were still more positives than negatives from the red zone offense, but it's clear that there's still a lot of work to be done in that area as well.
The main takeaway from this game is going to be the offense looking like an actual capable college offense for the first time all year, but we would be remiss to not praise the always-excellent defense as well. Iowa held Northwestern to 177 yards for the game -- and 75 of those yards came on a garbage time drive at the end of the game against Iowa's backups. Iowa's starting defense held Northwestern to just 102 yards for the game and only seven points -- which came on a short field after a shanked punt. When Northwestern had to move the ball the length of the field against Iowa's defensive starters, they simply couldn't. A lot of the praise has to go to Iowa's front seven, which absolutely mauled the Wildcats. Officially, Northwestern finished with 18 yards rushing on 37 carries (0.5 yards per carry), though that does include sack yardage. Still, actual Northwestern running backs managed just 60 yards on 22 carries (2.7 yards per carry). And the front seven was all over Northwestern QB Brendan Sullivan, sacking him a season-high seven times. Those seven sacks came from seven different players, too: Seth Benson, Joe Evans, Lukas Van Ness, Deontae Craig, Ethan Hurkett, Logan Lee, and Noah Shannon. Iowa's defensive line absolutely feasted in this game, which is always a beautiful sight to behold.
But we do have to address the large purple elephant in the room. This was a very good performance for Iowa, easily their best overall performance of the year. But it was also just Northwestern -- and that's not only a joke this time. This is a very bad Northwestern team; watching them it was not hard to see why they had lost six straight games entering this week or why they had failed to win a game on U.S. soil in over 365 days. Among other issues, their offensive line can't block, their receivers can't get open, and their defense has been an ongoing tire fire since longtime coordinator Mike Hankwitz retired a few years ago. How much of this performance was a result of Iowa playing well -- and how much was them playing the worst team in the Big Ten and probably the worst defense that they'll face all season (though, statistically speaking, Nebraska's defense is even more rotten than this Northwestern defense)? I don't think we can make that determination based on this game. Obviously things are going to be harder for the offense over the next three games as they play more competent defenses; how well they perform in those games will give us a better sense of how much of today's effort was fool's gold and how much was genuine improvement.
But, honestly, that's a problem to worry about next week. After watching absolutely miserable offense for two months, we should take at least one night to enjoy an offensive showing that was actually good. Iowa moved the ball consistently, they finished drives with points, they mixed the run and the pass well, and scored multiple non-fluky offensive touchdowns. We won't know if any of it was "real" for another week or two -- but that doesn't mean we can't enjoy it for a little while anyway. The offense looked good. The defense dominated. Iowa beat the crap out of a bad team. It's been a while since we could say some of those things, and it feels good to actually feel good about Iowa football for a little while.
Go Hawks. Go Iowa Awesome.