Leistikow: Evolving Hawkeyes continue to adapt, win ... and impress their coach
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Good football teams find ways to win, no matter the circumstance.
Iowa is a good team. And it might be something much better than good.
Sure. Go ahead and dream.
Right now, big goals seem attainable for the 22nd-ranked Hawkeyes after their third consecutive thorough domination of a Big Ten Conference opponent — this one a 23-0 beatdown of Maryland before 69,250 fans at wind-whipped Kinnick Stadium.
“If we just keep improving each week, like we preach,” said defensive end A.J. Epenesa, who helped Iowa slow the fast-paced Terrapins to 115 total yards, “then I think we can do anything.”
Sling for six touchdowns one week; run it 52 times the next.
And look good doing either one.
“We can run the ball," quarterback Nate Stanley said, "and throw it if we need to."
The Hawkeyes (6-1, 3-1 Big Ten) continue to adapt around injuries, wildly different opponents and — on Saturday — weather to continue their unbeaten October.
At some point this week, Iowa coaches made players aware that high winds were in the forecast. The gameplan against the Terrapins, who had the nation's 18th-ranked defense, became heavy on the run game — even though Stanley was coming off back-to-back 300 yard passing games.
So, the offense shifted into total ball-control mode like a bully playing keep-away on the school playground. The ball-hogging Hawkeyes had 52 rushing attempts — compared with 39 total plays for Maryland (4-3, 2-2) — for a season-high 224 yards.
No, the 4.3 yards per carry won’t blow a team away. But it sure will grind a team away.
Iowa's time of possession was 40 minutes, 55 seconds (the second-highest mark in Kirk Ferentz’s 20 years) to Maryland’s 19:05.
“Our plan got cut in half, a little bit like the (Pinstripe Bowl), where a lot of things we thought would be OK, you kind of toss them out,” Ferentz said. “The biggest (issue) today, just throwing the ball down the field. That would have been reckless and probably stupid."
That much became clearer after Stanley’s first pass of the day was intercepted.
The junior quarterback admitted he changed his approach.
"I knew that I needed to take care of the ball," Stanley said, "and not try to force anything."
On the fly, Stanley changed from a free-wheeling gunslinger to a conservative game manager.
It wasn’t Stanley’s best day. His gaudy passing numbers of the last two weeks turned into 11 of 22 for 86 yards Saturday.
But on a day in which the Iowa's defense swarmed Maryland’s high-powered rushing offense, it was a winning day.
Hawkeye defenders seemed confident this would be the result. Defensive end Parker Hesse, who has started more games than any current player, had that feeling affirmed in practice during the week.
GROUNDING THE 'JET': How Iowa's defense crushed Maryland's offense
“The way we run to the ball, the way we play together,” Hesse said, “that’s something you can trust in any situation.”
That dedication to preparation plus effort is why this team is clearly striking an emotional chord with its head coach.
Ferentz said something in his postgame news conference that got my attention — that, counting the bye week, players have been "8-for-8" in how they’ve approached the regular season.
"It just seems like whatever we ask them to do, they're doing it, trying to do it," Ferentz marveled.
“So, they're operating the right way. If we're going to have a good season ... we're going to need to continue that.”
And that brings us to Penn State, Iowa’s next opponent.
“Yeah,” redshirt junior defensive end Anthony Nelson said. “Happy Valley.”
Two years later, the memory is still raw. Trace McSorley, Saquon Barkley and the Nittany Lions gashed Iowa for 599 total yards in a 41-14 pounding in 2016 in State College, Pennsylvania.
“That’s a tough one to swallow,” Nelson said. “That sticks with you, especially since we felt like we had a good week of preparation.”
In other words: Preparation isn’t the whole deal. Bringing it on Saturday completes the week.
There will be no shortage of motivation for the Hawkeyes this week, especially considering they hung with McSorley and Barkley until the game’s final play in a rematch at Kinnick last year. Barkley's gone; McSorley's still there.
If this is a championship-level Iowa team — one that can win the Big Ten West, with some help — it can sure make a statement at 2:30 p.m. Saturday.
Ferentz mentioned a "good season" earlier. He was asked what he meant.
Eventually, he got to the answer. And it was a good one. As you read this, you can see there’s a message in there for his team.
They’re doing a great job so far; they’ve got to finish the fight.
And this is a big week ahead.
“There's two things you have to do,” Ferentz said. “You have to prepare, and then you've got to show up and compete.
“If you're not as good as the other team, at least you can live with your efforts by doing those things. But when you leave a game out there on Wednesday or Tuesday, or you leave it out there because of things that happen away from the building, those are the things that really are hard to live with.
“That's all we're trying to emphasize. Prepare every day, put an honest day's work in and then show up and compete.”
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.