Leistikow: Who are these guys? 5-1 Hawkeyes becoming relentless, ruthless
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — No doubt about it, what happened three weeks ago at Kinnick Stadium stung.
Losing 28-17 to Wisconsin, the divisional rival Iowa thought it was ready to conquer, festered. Deep down, Hawkeye players felt they were the better team and let a big one get away.
“Having the taste throughout the bye week was tough,” tight end T.J. Hockenson admitted.
But in the two games since?
“We’ve been able to get that taste out of our mouth,” Hockenson said.
The Hawkeyes of the past two weeks have been focused, determined, relentless. Any frustration they felt from the night of Sept. 22 is being taken out on their opponents.
Saturday, they made a decent Indiana team look helpless. The final count was 42-16 before an announced crowd of 40,512 at Memorial Stadium.
How relentless were the Hawkeyes?
With a 26-point lead, Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley (21-for-33, 320 yards) was still throwing deep passes in the final 3 minutes.
“We’re trying to be a championship-level football team around here,” Hockenson said. “Once you get up on a team, you need to step on the gas. That’s what we’re trying to do. Whether or not we’re doing it right now, we’re trying.”
It’s an aggressive mentality that’s spreading like wildfire in the locker room — which, by the way, is where this is all starting.
The reason the Hawkeyes have been able to survive a rash of injuries the past two weeks starts with a small senior class.
“These guys, wherever we seem to have problems, the other guys kind of rally,” head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “If I have to give anybody credit, I’ll start with our 13 seniors. We don’t have a big class of guys, but every one of those guys is totally on board.”
What does leadership look like?
Junior defensive end Anthony Nelson pointed to fifth-year seniors at his position — Sam Brincks, Parker Hesse and Matt Nelson. None of the three is a future NFL Combine star like younger teammates Noah Fant, Tristan Wirfs and A.J. Epenesa eventually could be.
“They’re the oldest guys out there,” Anthony Nelson said, “and they’re still attacking it and trying to get better.”
It started with culture in 2015, too, with a starless group of seniors who put their noses to the grindstone and set an example for more talented younger players you’re now seeing in the NFL — C.J. Beathard, Desmond King, George Kittle and Josey Jewell, to name a few.
That team won 12 games.
The 2018 Hawkeyes are starting to follow a similar blueprint.
Stanley threw for a career-high six touchdowns Saturday. Tight ends Fant and Hockenson combined for eight catches for 208 yards and three TDs. Brandon Smith had three more catches. Epenesa had another sack; Chauncey Golston did, too.
Not one of them is a senior.
The 2015 team, as I recall, came into Bloomington with plenty of doubters on the outside despite an 8-0 record. They left that day with a 35-27 win, and lots more people started to believe.
I imagine there are more believers in the 2018 Hawkeyes after what transpired Saturday. At the halfway point of the season, they stand 5-1 overall, 2-1 in the Big Ten Conference. A very good start, with the one Wisconsin blip.
But there’s a sense of belief, both inside and outside the locker room, that this group has the makings to be one of Ferentz's special teams. This offense looks to have maybe the most firepower since — dare I say — the 2002 season.
The offense is averaging 31.8 points per game and gaining steam.
Oh, and confidence.
"Nobody’s stopped us (the last two weeks)," Iowa center Keegan Render said. "We’ve just stopped ourselves.
"The most encouraging thing is there’s a lot of growth we can still make."
What we saw Saturday: a strong culture meshing with rising talent and an aggressive mentality.
What a promising combination.
“One of the things I’m really excited about is how much we can get better, in my mind,” Ferentz said, “if we keep our focus where we need to."
That doesn’t seem like it’ll be a problem for this group.
Sophomore Ihmir Smith-Marsette spoke of the extreme one-week-at-a-time focus that’s being instilled each week in practices from the seniors.
“You’re going to come together or fall apart,” he said. “And they make sure we stay together.”
That’ll be more important as the level of difficulty gets tougher.
A homecoming game against a Maryland team that beat Texas is next. After that comes a defining three-game stretch for these Hawkeyes — at Penn State, at Purdue, then back home to face surging Northwestern.
The way Iowa’s offense is racking up points …
... And knowing the defense is about to get a whole lot healthier with starters Jack Hockaday, Nick Niemann and Matt Hankins nearing full strength …
... Every game on the Hawkeyes' schedule is there for the taking.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.