Leistikow: A lot to like in Jewell-fueled Hawkeyes' opening win

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The future NFL quarterback would later call it a “bonehead decision.”

But it was Josey Jewell who made Josh Allen do it.

Jewell, not the Wyoming signal-caller, was the best football player at Kinnick Stadium on this Saturday afternoon during Iowa's 24-3 win before 68,075 fans.

As Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz would later point out, it’s a safe bet the horde of NFL scouts who came here to watch Allen couldn’t miss the middle linebacker in black wearing No. 43. Especially on a game-changing play late in the second quarter.

Iowa senior linebacker Josey Jewell gets to Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017.

After an Iowa fumble, Wyoming took the ball near the tip of the new Tiger Hawk’s beak — at the Hawkeyes' 43-yard line — down 7-3 but with an eye on taking a halftime lead.

Kinnick was clenching.

Jewell came on a blitz from the right edge. He chased Allen back and to the left, out of the pocket, where the big-armed talent tends to make some of his most jaw-dropping plays. Jewell charged at Allen, moving his hips to shadow his every move. Allen, left with no good options as Jewell closed in, hastily shoveled the ball out of bounds.

Yellow flag. Intentional grounding. Officially, a 19-yard sack for Jewell. And a season-opener changed.

“That was an interesting play. It was a blitz from right away. We had Ben (Niemann) coming,” Jewell said. “Then they motioned over, shifted over to the tight end, and that freed up me to come on the blitz. I was just thinking stay outside, don’t let him get outside … keep on running after him, and hopefully something happens.”

It did. And the domino effect was substantial.

A stuffed Allen keeper and a smart Iowa timeout; a 3-yard sack by freshman A.J. Epenesa; a botched/whiffed punt by poor Tim Zaleski of Wyoming; then a 27-yard touchdown pass from Nate Stanley to Noah Fant with 22 seconds left before halftime.

In less than a half-minute of game clock, Jewell’s relentless play helped spark a 14-3 Hawkeye lead.

“That was huge,” Allen said. “… I thought maybe I could get around (Jewell), but I just didn’t have enough time to turn around and throw it away. That was a bonehead decision on my part.”

The second half was more of the same. Iowa’s defense — not just Jewell — made Allen look human: 23-of-40, 174 yards, no touchdowns, two interceptions. Wyoming’s only three points Saturday came on a 49-yard field goal.

Jewell’s line: 14 tackles, two sacks and one projected top-five NFL Draft pick dominated.

That's just the small picture, though.

The big picture: If this defense can be this fundamentally sound and physical week in and week out, this Hawkeye team has some serious upside.

Wyoming coach Craig Bohl, who made a name for himself by leading North Dakota State to FCS national championships and consistent slayings of FBS programs, said Iowa’s “front seven is as talented, collectively, as I’ve seen in a long time.”

Consider this: The Hawkeyes were minus-four in turnover margin through three quarters, yet still led by 18 points. That's defense.

“It’s a three-phase game. There’s going to be times when the offense is going to turn the ball over, like today," said Niemann, who had 13 tackles of his own. "It’s our job to not allow points and to kind of pick them up."

About that offense ... 

It was a mess at times. It only ran 56 plays for a modest 263 yards. But it proved to be clutch.

Give Brian Ferentz a passing grade in his first day on the job as a collegiate play-caller.

Whatever the new offensive coordinator's script was coming into the game, he surely didn't plan for three-and-out on his first three drives, with a lost fumble on the fourth.

But that's what happened.

In response to those circumstances and a 3-0 deficit, the Hawkeyes went for fourth-and-short twice on the way to an 11-yard, 65-yard touchdown drive.

The final stroke? A fourth-and-goal call from the Wyoming 2.

It was Kirk Ferentz's decision to go for it. It was Brian Ferentz's play call, and Stanley's execution — a perfectly flipped ball to Fant off play-action for a relieving touchdown.

"I just told him, 'Come up with a good play,'" Kirk quipped afterward of his son. "It's easy. Then I blame it on the coordinator if it didn't work."

Wadley rushed 24 times Saturday for a quiet 116 yards, a workhorse performance. James Butler looked solid as the No. 2 back, carrying 10 times for 47.

Stanley will get better from this. In fact, he seemed to progress as the game unfolded. Yet despite the hiccups (an interception and two lost fumbles), he threw for three touchdown passes.

Most importantly: The true sophomore is 1-0. And so are the Hawkeyes.

It's easy to forget that eight months to the day, Iowa was stifled by Florida 30-3 in the Outback Bowl. There was an outcry that day, including from me, for offensive change.

Change was made. We knew it wasn't going to be a polished offensive machine Week 1, especially not with a new quarterback, new receivers and (on Saturday) with a new left tackle and new center in a makeshift offensive line.

You'd rather see a dominant defense at this point than a sexy offense.

With what we saw from Jewell and Co. on Saturday, it suddenly feels like there's a higher ceiling with these Hawkeyes than there was a week ago.

Up next: Iowa State, in Ames.

Let the buildup begin.

"We’re 1-0. It’s a good way to start the season," Wadley said. "The only thing better than that is being 2-0. We're going to enjoy this tonight, and then we’ll keep going.”

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.