Iowa auditions young players in key spots in win over Purdue
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Say this for the Iowa coaching staff: After frustrating back-to-back losses, they weren’t afraid to try new faces in key spots.
The No. 22 Hawkeyes beat Purdue 26-20 Saturday at Kinnick Stadium in a performance that won’t exactly quiet the critics. The offense bogged down too often again, particularly on third downs in Boilermakers’ territory (1-for-7). The defense gave up some big plays in the passing game and 360 yards overall, but did generate two needed turnovers.
It was a victory Iowa had to have to keep alive its hopes for a Big Ten West title.
But it was primarily noteworthy for the number of Hawkeyes who had played sparingly, if at all, this season, but suddenly got the opportunity to show what they can do. It was as if Kirk Ferentz and his coaching staff were auditioning, seeking new talent who could possibly help in the final five games.
That included true freshman Dane Belton, who played extensively at the “cash” position where Amani Hooker excelled last season. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker hadn’t felt comfortable using it in the first six games this season. Belton, a Florida native, has obviously changed his mind. And he backed it up by playing well against a spread Purdue attack, finishing with six tackles.
Belton was a safety this summer but started working at the cash spot during Iowa’s bye week last month. He was rarely tested by Purdue, but junior safety Geno Stone said Belton was always in the right spot Saturday.
“I was really proud of Dane, how he played today,” senior cornerback Michael Ojemudia said. “He had really good composure in the game. It wasn’t too big for him. He didn’t have wide eyes.”
Redshirt freshman Dillon Doyle got his first career start at middle linebacker with senior Kristian Welch out with an injury. That wasn’t a big surprise. But true freshman Jack Campbell also was called on to spell Doyle at times, his most extensive action. Iowa linebackers coach Seth Wallace is high on both youngsters. They’ll be a big part of the future at that position.
Doyle and Campbell are roommates, both native Iowans. They spent Friday night poring over the lessons that Welch was hammering home all week, about the details they’d need to master against a Boilermaker offense that lives and dies by the pass. Things like how to read the guards and the fullback.
Doyle admitted to some nerves in anticipation of his start.
“It’s not OK to treat yourself like a young player,” Doyle said. “Everybody’s trying to push and play like older guys.”
True freshman Justin Britt, another high-upside athlete who hadn’t seen the field much so far, got plenty of snaps as the backup to Mark Kallenberger at right guard. The play of the interior of Iowa’s offensive line has been inferior. It wasn’t stellar Saturday, but it at least looked less shaky. Quarterback Nate Stanley was sacked only once.
Redshirt freshman John Waggoner got his first meaningful snaps at defensive end. How did he do? On his second play, he face-planted Purdue quarterback Jack Plummer for a 7-yard loss in the second quarter, eliciting the loudest response from the crowd to that point. It was his first career tackle, let alone sack. And, yes, Waggoner heard the noise, but he couldn’t remember how he celebrated.
“It was kind of surreal. I kind of blacked out for a little bit, I think,” said Waggoner, a Des Moines native.
It was the Hawkeyes’ only sack of Plummer, who threw for 327 yards and two touchdowns.
“I had a long scoop to the A-gap. And they were running play-action, zone blocking to my right, so it was even a longer stick,” Waggoner said. “A couple yards away from (Plummer), I said, ‘Oh, he’s still got (the football).’ I was surprised he still had it. The secondary did a great job on the back end.”
That wasn’t the end of the tinkering in the Iowa lineup. Special teams coordinator LeVar Woods replaced Nico Ragaini at punt returner with Max Cooper. He didn’t allow any kicks to roll past him for key lost yardage.
After junior cornerback Matt Hankins drew Parker’s ire for getting beat repeatedly by Purdue star receiver David Bell (13 catches for 197 yards), he was yanked from the lineup and replaced by sophomore Riley Moss. Two plays later, Moss had an interception. Iowa turned that into its firtouchdown.
That touchdown was scored by true freshman running back Tyler Goodson, who took every offensive snap for Iowa’s first two series of the second half, seemingly having supplanted juniors Mekhi Sargent and Toren Young. On Iowa’s first play after the Moss interception, quarterback Nate Stanley found Goodson out of the backfield for a 20-yard gain.
When Iowa got down to Purdue’s 1-yard line, it was Goodson who finally was called on to leap into the end zone after two previous attempts failed. It was his first touchdown.
The message in all this: No one’s spot is guaranteed. If Iowa is going to go down to defeat, it’s going to at least explore all its options in the process.
Afterward, Waggoner voiced what all the Hawkeye newcomers must be thinking.
“You’re still young,” he said. “But once you’re in there, there’s no dropoff of the standard that we set.”
Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.