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Iowa defense burned by Purdue's Bell and a surprise rushing performance; Northwestern looms

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — There was no question where Purdue was going with the football in key moments Saturday.

Star wide receiver Rondale Moore was out, but David Bell remained. And that was enough against a short-handed Iowa defense that lost track of Bell at the worst possible moment and watched the Boilermakers walk out of Ross-Ade Stadium with a 24-20 win in the opening game of the season.

“He’s a special player,” Purdue quarterback Aidan O’Connell said after connecting with Bell for three touchdowns. “He’s a kid who physically is a mismatch. I think even more than physically, his mental makeup is impressive. He knows where to be, when to be there.”

Bell caught 13 passes, the same total he accumulated last year in a 26-20 loss to Iowa. The difference this time wasn’t the how many, it was the when.

In addition to the three touchdowns, Bell showed a knack for keeping the chains moving, with four other catches that converted third downs.

Fittingly, Bell’s final catch also came on third down, with the Boilermakers on Iowa’s 6-yard line trailing 20-17. Bell was in the slot, with Hawkeye linebacker Barrington Wade facing him, and ran a simple go route. Wade brushed Bell but kept his eyes upfield, clearly assuming he had a teammate behind him to take over.

No one did. Bell settled into the back of the end zone by himself, and O’Connell was happy to toss him the football to take the lead with 2 minutes, 15 seconds left.

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Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz chalked it up to miscommunication among his defensive players, many of whom were taking on new assignments.

“I’m not sure we had the right matchups,” Ferentz said. “I think the guy in coverage thought he had a little help inside.”

Iowa was without starting defensive tackle Austin Schulte, plus linebackers Jack Campbell and Seth Benson. Only two Hawkeye defenders played the entire game Saturday at the same position they started at a year ago — end Chauncey Golston and safety Jack Koerner.

Senior cornerback Matt Hankins was often asked to move inside to the cash position when Iowa used five defensive backs. Senior Nick Niemann became the team’s middle linebacker as Campbell’s replacement.

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Ferentz said that was no excuse for coming up short.

“Guys did a good job and we just weren’t quite good enough,” he said.

Purdue running back Zander Horvath was able to punish the Iowa defense for 129 yards on the ground in a 24-20 win. That was bad news for Hawkeye defenders Nick Niemann (49) and Julius Brents, who now must get ready to face a Northwestern team that just rushed for 325 yards.

Ferentz seemed more concerned that the Hawkeyes let Purdue reserve running back Zander Horvath punish them in the second half. Horvath gained 93 of his 129 rushing yards after intermission. That’s a disquieting statistic when you consider that the Boilermakers are not known for generating yards on the ground and that Iowa’s next opponent is Northwestern (2:30 p.m. Saturday, ESPN). The Wildcats are coming off a 43-3 victory over Maryland in which they piled up 325 rushing yards, with four touchdowns.

“You’re not going to win games allowing backs to run like they did on us (Saturday),” Niemann said, pointing to his team’s inability to fight off of blocks and become physical tacklers in the Purdue loss.

Iowa should get Benson back this week, which will help. Benson may be able to start at middle linebacker, allowing the rangy Niemann to move back outside where he is most effective.

But the Hawkeyes will be looking for help in the interior of their defensive line, where Schulte, a senior, is expected to miss more time. Daviyon Nixon was the best defensive player on the field Saturday, tying his Hawkeye career-high with seven tackles and never seeming to lose his stamina despite being asked to play nearly all of the snaps.

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Jack Heflin and Noah Shannon also rotated in at defensive tackle, but Iowa would ideally like one more option there to keep players fresh, especially if Northwestern is intent on running the football. That would also minimize an Iowa pass rush that struggled to pressure O’Connell on Saturday, sacking him only twice on 52 pass attempts.

Iowa’s defense did, force six Purdue punts. It intercepted O’Connell twice. It hung tough until the very end, when Bell’s third touchdown left the Hawkeyes hanging their heads.

Now, they need to regroup in time to tangle with Northwestern in their home opener, which will be played in front of family members only. The Hawkeyes haven’t started a season 0-2 since 2000, Ferentz’s second year. Niemann knows there’s a tough week of work ahead.

“It’s just, who had better preparation?” Niemann said of the narrow difference between a win and a loss Saturday. “Who’s going to go out there and compete and find a way to win? They did that.”

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.