The Iowa coach hashes out blowout wins and frustrating losses.
Trying to over-analyze Iowa football’s up-and-down November could easily gobble up a one-hour radio show. OK, maybe two hours.
But a one-word analysis might be all that's needed to capture why the Hawkeyes looked so bad against Wisconsin and Purdue but so good against Ohio State and, now, Nebraska:
You either have it in football, or you don’t. And each week, there are breaking-point moments in gaining or losing that ever-important mental edge in a violent sport centered around aggression.
In the 55-24 rout against Ohio State, it was Amani Hooker’s game-opening pick-six that showed Hawkeye players they could slay a college-football giant.
In the 38-14 loss to Wisconsin, a blitzing Badger defense sent uncertainty into Iowa's offensive line, quarterback and even play-caller.
In the 24-15 loss to Purdue, it was a cornerback being victimized on four straight plays to open the second half that put Iowa on its heels.
And in Friday’s 56-14 beat-down of Nebraska, the Hawkeyes established a punishing confidence during a few key moments while systematically taking it away from the 4-8 Cornhuskers.
The final regular-season installment of DVR Monday begins with plays that saw 7-5 Iowa tip the scales on the way to a satisfying Heroes Trophy victory.
The 99-yard drive
What began with Ihmir Smith-Marsette stepping out of bounds at his own 1-yard line ended up with fellow Weequahic (N.J.) High School alum Akrum Wadley going into the end zone from Nebraska’s 20.
Perhaps no more important play on that drive that consumed 7 minutes, 18 seconds occurred on second-and-11— a typically tough down for the Hawkeyes — from Iowa’s 21.
Stanley looped a throw up the right sideline to Matt VandeBerg, who was running a fade route and dove to catch the football with his fingertips, keeping it millimeters from the ground, for a 21-yard connection.
This play showed growth from Stanley (whose touch had been an early-season problem) and restored confidence into a senior receiver who has had uncharacteristic drop issues and struggles in the punt-return game. (VandeBerg later saw his punt-return yips get cured with a pair of nice runbacks.)
An Iowa offense that scored 13 points in losses to Wisconsin and Purdue with 14 three-and-outs was finally moving.
“A lot of times it’s about finding your rhythm, gaining confidence,” Fox Sports analyst Danny Kanell correctly pointed out. “Seeing a couple passes completed (is important), like they did on this drive on that earlier fade route (to VandeBerg).”
Other key moments that shouldn’t be lost on that 15-play drive:
— The aggression of Kirk and Brian Ferentz to go for a fourth-and-1 from Nebraska’s 49 (and get it, on a Stanley quarterback sneak) showed, you guessed it, confidence.
— Iowa going back to Smith-Marsette (after his kick-return blunder) three times on bubble screens, including a 14-yarder that was sprung in part by a block from fellow true freshman receiver Brandon Smith.
— The third-and-8 touchdown call came after a Ferentz timeout, and on a surprise running play that saw third tight end Nate Wieting pull to help clear the way for Wadley. Also on that play, Nebraska nose tackle Mick Stoltenberg (a key fixture for a 3-4 defense) was injured and lost for the game after getting flattened by James Daniels and rolled into by Keegan Render.
Iowa’s center James Daniels discusses the Hawkeyes' second-half domination of Nebraska. Chad Leistikow/The Register
More turning points
Iowa found itself trailing, 14-7, and had a few second-quarter things to go its way that wound up emboldening the black and gold and dispiriting the home team — for good.
The timing of Iowa punter Colten Rastetter drawing a 5-yard flag on Nebraska’s Tony Butler for running into the kicker was monstrous. Not only did it give Iowa a first down, it came on the heels of a potential confidence-breaking moment — a Noah Fant dropped pass on third-and-4.
On the next play, Wadley’s run up the left sideline ended in a fumble. Another uh-oh moment. But hustling Smith-Marsette scooped it up in a moment of redemption and allowed the Hawkeyes to keep the ball on a play that covered 34 yards.
Fant, who earlier had the drop, capped the 11-play drive with a 4-yard TD catch on third down.
So instead of Nebraska fielding a punt and having 5 minutes or so left in the first half to build on a 14-7 lead, it didn’t get the ball back until 20 seconds remained — with the score tied, 14-14, and Iowa getting the ball to start the second half.
I had several people ask me to try and pinpoint when Nebraska lost its desire. I’d say that culmination of second-quarter events was it. The Cornhuskers would be outscored, 42-0, after halftime — Mike Riley’s final half as Nebraska head coach.
The Hawkeye quarterback says his offensive line took a toll on Cornhuskers
He played 35 snaps in Friday’s game. From his first to his last, Anthony Nelson was a constantly disruptive force.
The 6-foot-7 sophomore defensive end had a big hand in dismantling the confidence of Nebraska quarterback Tanner Lee.
Nelson was flying at Lee from every direction. On the day's first snap, Nelson's hand-fighting win helped him blow past freshman right tackle Brendan Jaimes and clock Lee on a play that was initially ruled a fumble-six touchdown but was overturned to a punishing incomplete pass on review.
Still, Kanell pointed out as a former quarterback: “You always have that in the back of your mind the rest of the day.”
Nelson quickly drew double-team attention, which freed up fellow lineman Parker Hesse to bat down a Lee pass to end that first drive. He later closed the pocket to help Hesse land Iowa’s only sack of the day. He had Jaimes guessing, beating the rookie on a later stunt and a speed rush. Nelson even lined up at right end a few times just to keep Nebraska on its heels.
And on his only snap of the fourth quarter, Nelson walloped Lee as he threw, and Josey Jewell intercepted the fledgling attempt.
Though the stat line (two tackles, two breakups, two QB hurries) didn’t show Nelson’s dominance, this was probably his best game as a Hawkeye. Nelson enters bowl play with 13 career sacks (seven last year, six this year) and entrenches his status as a pass-rushing fixture for two years to come.
By the way, Iowa intercepted Lee three times Friday, bumping its season total to 19. That's tied with Central Michigan for the most in FBS.
Pass pressure by Nelson and Co. helped a young Iowa secondary (which featured two true freshmen Friday) hold up.
“Anthony’s really done a nice job. He’s gotten better with every step along the way,” Kirk Ferentz said Friday. “His best football is still in front of him. But he’s a more mature guy now. And he has a better understanding how to play his position. He’s always had a knack for how to rush the passer.”
Some final observations from the re-watch:
— When Ivory Kelly-Martin scampered through a hole on the right side for 57 yards in the fourth quarter, four true freshmen were on the field. In addition to the man who carried the ball, receivers Max Cooper and Brandon Smith were lined up to the right of tackle Tristan Wirfs. If you add two redshirt freshmen linemen to the mix (left tackle Alaric Jackson, center Cole Banwart), there were six “fresh” faces on the field for that long run.
— The game’s biggest cheerleader? Boone Myers. The injured fifth-year senior tackle was a camera magnet in comfort wear Friday, seen smiling and congratulating teammates after repeated big plays. The former walk-on from Webster City has been an inspirational team leader while sidelined after ankle surgery. Here's hoping he can make it back for Iowa's bowl game.
— Speaking of celebrations, kicker Miguel Recinos jumped airborne and fired off Ron Coluzzi-esque fist pumps after his third-quarter kickoff from his own 20-yard line went for a touchback. While some of Iowa's special teams have been shaky, the junior walk-on from Mason City has been splendid. He remains perfect on PATs (41-for-41), solid on field goals (9-for-11) and has been quietly dominant handling kickoffs.
— A key offseason position battle will be at linebacker, where Iowa must replace three starting seniors. But sophomore Kristian Welch (middle) and junior Aaron Mends (weak-side) played well in their fourth-quarter time Friday, with Welch even returning a Lee interception 33 yards. When talking about confidence, a play like that could play a role in how a young linebacker like Welch heads into the offseason.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.