WEST LAFAYETTE, IND. — One team was dominant at Ross-Ade Stadium, the other was pathetic.
The final score — Iowa 49, Purdue 35 — doesn't come close to telling the story of Saturday’s game.
The 31 pass attempts and 272 total yards that the Boilermakers piled up in the final 15 minutes, 44 seconds after most of the announced 40,239 fans on homecoming here were long gone? The equivalent of a basketball team down 30 points in the second half and full-court pressing the backups.
It’s good for Hawkeye teaching moments — an “education day for a lot of our guys,” coach Kirk Ferentz said afterward — but not worth agonizing about.
Sure, there were mistakes Saturday.
But take heart, Hawkeye fans: This was the most complete performance by Iowa’s starters since the 42-3 pasting of Iowa State in Week 2.
“Obviously, we would’ve liked to finish better. But we had a bunch of 2s in there,” said quarterback C.J. Beathard, who threw for two touchdowns on his 17 attempts, rushed for another and didn’t turn the ball over. “We got the win, and that’s what we came here to do.”
Before the fourth quarter started, coaches told Beathard that backup Nathan Stanley — and a lot of other second-stringers — would be going into the game, with Iowa ahead 42-14.
Although the backups on both sides of the ball failed to put the game away, they gained invaluable experience.
And when the starting defense returned, Desmond King delivered a punctuating pick-six to push Iowa’s lead to 49-28 with 1:44 left.
“We’re feeling good,” King said after Iowa rolled up a season-high 560 yards and took another step forward in what is becoming a more competitive West Division by the week.
The Hawkeyes moved to 5-2 overall, 3-1 in the Big Ten Conference.
Although it still may be true that the easiest part of their league schedule is now in the past, it’s notable that Iowa's opponents the past two weeks, who we thought were maybe underwhelming, looked pretty impressive Saturday.
Northwestern, which stunned Iowa 38-31 two weeks ago, scored 54 points at Michigan State and swiped yet another road win.
Minnesota, a team Iowa suffocated a week ago for a 14-7 triumph, went to Maryland without its starting quarterback and won by three touchdowns.
Both results look a little better now, don't they? And it gives the Hawkeyes some reasonable hope that they can win Big Ten West home games against rival Wisconsin (next week) and unbeaten Nebraska (the Nov. 25 finale) down the stretch.
“Things are moving in the right direction for us right now,” said senior receiver Riley McCarron, who took his own step forward this week. After two drops and a fumble last week at Minnesota, Iowa's new No. 1 wideout caught four balls for 74 yards, including a gorgeous 42-yarder from Beathard to give Iowa a 21-0 lead.
Last week, Iowa’s noticeable step forward as a team was its the rushing defense.
This week, the rush defense was excellent again — and the rushing offense came along for the ride.
The Hawkeyes piled up 365 yards on the ground Saturday, the most by a Ferentz-coached team since a Big Ten title-clinching win at Minnesota in 2002.
It was a beautiful thing. And if Iowa had left its starters in like Purdue did, that number would’ve ballooned.
That kind of domination is how you end up with postgame quotes like this from the opposing coach.
"I am not sure why we started off slow,” Purdue’s Darrell Hazell said. “Maybe it was them executing and us not executing.”
Anyway, now the stakes get higher — and quickly — for the Hawkeyes.
The home stretch of the season is here, and No. 10 Wisconsin (4-1, 1-1 entering Saturday’s showdown against Ohio State) will bring a ferocious test.
The Badgers have by far the best defense Iowa has faced this season. That newfound rushing defense and rushing offense will be tested.
“I think we need to take another big step this week through practice,” said middle linebacker Josey Jewell, who, along with King, wasn’t on the field for any of Purdue’s final 21 points. “They’re a good football team. We’re going to have to throw it all at them.”
And thanks to two straight encouraging performances, Iowa seems like it can.
“Six weeks to play five games. How much can you move the needle forward?” Ferentz correctly posited. “I think at least these last two weeks, we’ve done that. Which I’m happy about.”
As he should be.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.