Leistikow's Final Thoughts: Iowa defense 'angry' after losing shutout against UNI

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Why was the bulk of Iowa’s first-team defense in Saturday’s game with a 38-0 lead in the fourth quarter?

The Hawkeyes wanted the shutout.

Yes, the guys on Phil Parker’s side of the ball seek perfection. Maybe that wasn’t the smartest call in a blowout game, to add more mileage to the starters' legs. Luckily for Iowa, it didn’t result in any obvious injuries.

Iowa's defense hounded Northern Iowa starting quarterback Colton Howell in the first half. He was replaced by Eli Dunne in the second.

But maybe leaving them in will wind up serving as a motivator heading into next week’s showdown against Wisconsin.

Because the near-perfect defense was cracked in the fourth quarter, with two Northern Iowa touchdowns in Iowa’s 38-14 win.

“We didn’t finish the game we wanted to,” outside linebacker Nick Niemann said. “Gave up two significantly long drives, I guess, and they scored on both of them. Not too happy about that.”

Yes, we’re already reached the point of the football season that when the Iowa first-team defense gives up a touchdown, that’s news.

How about this stat: The first-teamers had allowed three points — just one field goal to Iowa State — in their first 32 series of the season. (The only previous touchdown Iowa had allowed, vs. Northern Illinois, was against the second-teamers.)

But that no-touchdown streak ended when UNI drove 75 and 65 yards for touchdowns. Quarterback Eli Dunne started slinging it around Kinnick Stadium. He threw for 200 second-half yards.

“They had a lot of quick passes and quick drops where we didn’t have a lot of time to get back there,” said defensive end A.J. Epenesa, who in the first quarter notched his fourth sack of the season. “They couldn’t run the ball on us, so they reverted to those. Didn’t really give us a chance to get there. I think that’s how they started coming back a little bit.”

Iowa almost got the stop it wanted, up 38-0. But on a third-and-goal call from the 12-yard line, safety Jake Gervase was flagged for pass interference to set up Dunne's 4-yard TD to Briley Moore.

On the next UNI touchdown drive, Dunne beat Iowa cornerback Michael Ojemudia for a 40-yard completion to Jalen Rima. That’s the longest play the Hawkeyes have allowed all season.

“We’re striving to be the best. Giving up points, giving up penalties isn’t what’s going to help us be the best,” middle linebacker Jack Hockaday said. “We were angry. We’re going to have to clean it up for next week.”

A defense that gave up six rushing yards — the second-lowest total of the Kirk Ferentz era (Kent State, 2004) — in a blowout win left the stadium angry.

Chalk that up as good to hear, three weeks into the season.

Nick Easley looked like his old self out there.

And maybe better than his 2017 self.

Easley had been much of a factor in the Hawkeyes’ first two wins. Last year’s leading receiver, with 51 catches, had one for 15 yards entering Saturday. (Ferentz said he had been battling a minor injury.)

But against UNI, he not only broke out — he had the first 10-catch game by an Iowa receiver since Keenan Davis against Pittsburgh in 2011.

Easley made tough catches and sweet catches on his way to a 10-reception, 103-yard night. Both were career highs. His 14-yard touchdown pass from Nate Stanley was a thing of beauty and gave Iowa a 31-0 lead midway through the third quarter.

“It’s part of the game, part of being a slot receiver, working that middle area,” Easley said. “There are some big dudes out there, so you are going to take some shots every once in a while.”

One of the reasons Iowa’s passing game sputtered was because of a lack of wide-receiver production. In one week, Easley gave us a reminder that when he’s healthy — he’s a very good football player.

Iowa running back Mekhi Sargent tiptoes along the sideline after running the ball for a first down against Northern Iowa on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City.

The latest Iowa Western ‘godsend’ is Mekhi Sargent.

That word in quotes was something offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz said about Easley a year ago, when he arrived from Iowa Western to give stability to Iowa’s passing game.

Sargent has been a revelation. I joked on Twitter that he was a great trade-deadline acquisition in June — because here’s an unexpected summer arrival who is suddenly a big part of the Hawkeyes’ plans.

He runs hard. He’s quick. He’s nimble. And he’s surprisingly powerful.

Sargent gained 120 yards from scrimmage (15 carries, 72 yards; one catch, 48 yards) and scored two touchdowns Saturday.

“I can't say enough about him,” Ferentz said. “Every time you talk to him, first of all, he's a great young guy. He's just got a really humble approach, he's got a real appreciation for being here, and he's a good football player on top of it.

“I think he's got a chance to be a really good player here before he leaves here and, boy, that's exciting for us.”

He and Toren Young (14 carries, 82 yards) manned the backfield for the second straight Saturday with starter Ivory Kelly-Martin (left ankle) out.

Ferentz was hopeful Kelly-Martin could return against Wisconsin, but said he would provide an update Tuesday.

Also on the injury front, receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette (shoulder) and right guard Cole Banwart (lower leg) did not play. Dalton Ferguson and Levi Paulsen rotated as Banwart’s replacement.

If I could nitpick something about a 545-yard game …

Iowa’s offensive output was the eighth-best of the 242-game Ferentz era (145-97). That’ll help the national total-offense ranking (which was 113th entering Saturday).

But for the second straight week, the running game lacked a big play.

Iowa’s longest run was a 15-yarder by Young; a 13-yard scramble by backup quarterback Peyton Mansell was the second-longest. Last week, Iowa’s longest rush was 11 yards.

That’s 86 rushing attempts, none longer than 15 yards the past two weeks. Maybe Kelly-Martin, whenever he returns, can add some octane to the running game.

It’s hard to find criticisms about Iowa’s linebacker play.

In both his career starts, weak-side linebacker Kristian Welch has led the Hawkeyes in tackles. He had eight Saturday, a week after sitting out with an injury against Iowa State. Djimon Colbert played very well against the Cyclones in Welch’s absence.

Hockaday looked good again in his second career start. Niemann has been terrific at outside linebacker, but Ferentz also likes what he’s got in Amani Jones and Barrington Wade.

“I think we're developing some depth,” Ferentz said. “I don't know how much we were counting on that or expecting that.

“So, a position we didn't know about, right now it looks like we might have five or six guys that can play in the game and play well. That is certainly pleasing.”

It’s been one of the more pleasant surprises of the season; that the Hawkeyes have been able to by committee replace the three senior starters at linebacker off last year’s team. This has been way, way better than when Iowa tried to make the same transition in 2014.

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.