Leistikow's Final Thoughts: Questionable officiating a justified storyline in Iowa loss

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Iowa deserved to lose this football game, plain and simple.

Its defense was too leaky in the entertaining 38-36 loss to Purdue before 60,716 fans Saturday at Ross-Ade Stadium.

But when the game was on the line, Purdue got plenty of help from the guys in stripes. And some of the calls were so, let's say, interesting that veteran coach Kirk Ferentz spoke up about them.

Kirk Ferentz disputes a call during Saturday's 38-36 loss to Purdue.

He knows the rules. You can't publicly rip into the officials. So being as careful as he could, Ferentz ticked off a lot of the thing his veteran eyes saw Saturday.

"I don’t mind telling you," he said, "it was a little frustrating for everybody.”

With the Hawkeyes nursing a 36-35 lead as they looked to milk the final eight minutes of clock, they were whistled for their first two offensive holding penalties in a span of three snaps.

“We go 55 minutes without a holding call," Ferentz said. "We got two of them there. It’s unfortunate.”

The first, on center Keegan Render, was a flat-out bad call. It wiped out a positive run by Mekhi Sargent.

"I thought it was a good block. The guy fell down," Render said. "I just kept running my feet.”

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The second hold, on Sargent, put Iowa at second-and-24 — and they later punted, giving the Boilermakers the ball at midfield with 4 minutes, 30 seconds left. Then, a controversial pass-interference penalty against cornerback Julius Brents was the key play that led to Spencer Evans' 25-yard go-ahead field goal with 8 seconds remaining.

The call against Brents, who was battling Isaac Zico in the end zone, was debatable. Both players had their hands on each other. They both were looking for the ball. If it had been ruled incomplete, Purdue would've faced third-and-18 from Iowa's 31 — hardly sure-fire field-goal range.

"It looked like a clean play to me," Ferentz said after watching the replay. "It looked like a ball overthrown."

Safety Jake Gervase disputed the call to no avail.

"I didn’t necessarily agree with it," he said afterward. "He made the call and stuck with it.”

Ferentz also insinuated that Purdue's defensive backs were holding throughout the game. Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz was piping mad after Iowa's second two-point conversion try, when tight end Noah Fant — who looked to be Nate Stanley's primary target on the play — was blatantly grabbed as he began his pass route. 

"A year ago, our receivers couldn’t get open against a junior-high team," Kirk Ferentz said. "Today we had a hard time. I think we’ve got pretty good receivers."

You caught that dig, right?

Ferentz and the players were in lock-step, that the officials weren't being blamed for the 18th-ranked Hawkeyes' second straight road loss.

Purdue may have well won the game if the aforementioned calls went Iowa's way. But it would have been nice to see it play out organically. Instead, questionable officiating became a justified postgame topic.

The refs inexplicably kept the flags in their pockets on the Fant pass route; they should have kept them there on a few late calls.

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Phil Parker’s personal credo at defensive coordinator is to avoid the big plays.

Two or fewer of 25 yards, his research shows, and Iowa has a good chance to limit the opponent and win the game.

Purdue struck for four biggies Saturday. Not good.

David Blough connected with receivers for completions of 36 yards (to Zico, a touchdown), 57 (to tight end Brycen Hopkins) and 41 and 82 (both to Terry Wright, both for touchdowns).

Jeff Brohm attacked Iowa’s true freshmen corners at various points of the game.

Early, the crafty Boilermakers coach targeted Indianapolis native Brents.

On Purdue’s first snap of the game, Zico ran a simple sideline route, and Brents couldn’t make the initial tackle — and the play went for 15 yards to set an early tone. The drive finished with Zico burning Brents over the middle on a post pattern for a 36-yard score.

Later, it was Riley Moss getting the bulk of David Blough's deep throws. Wright’s two touchdowns both went over the top of the Ankeny Centennial product, although the first appeared to be helped by a push-off by the receiver. 

Gervase and Amani Hooker helped Iowa's secondary with second-half interceptions. But this was by far the worst game of the year from the back seven, which had been buttoned up for most of the season.

“That’s our biggest job, to eliminate the big plays. Give our defensive line time to get home to make the big plays," Gervase said. "We didn’t do that. That falls on us as a secondary. That falls on me as a senior within that group.”

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Kirk Ferentz still believes in Brents and Moss as his corners.

Even though Michael Ojemudia replaced Moss in the fourth quarter, Iowa's head coach thinks his rookies give him the best shot to win.

“Without seeing this film," he said, "I’m really pleased with how Julius and Ryan have done."

Ferentz said the staff will look at Ojemudia and Matt Hankins, who is coming off an injury and suspension, as options during practice this week as the Hawkeyes prepare for Northwestern. I wouldn't mind seeing Hankins get another shot, if he's 100 percent. He was playing well in Iowa's first four games before suffering wrist and hamstring injuries.

Save your Nate Stanley hot takes.

The Iowa junior quarterback had a strong bounce-back game after struggling mightily at Penn State. 

Stanley finished 21 of 32 for 275 yards with one touchdown pass and no turnovers against the Boilermakers. He played with tape around his injured right (throwing) thumb, but his throws were mostly on target Saturday. He threw a gorgeous 4-yard touch pass to T.J. Hockenson on fourth down to trim Purdue's lead to 28-23 in the third quarter.

The 36 points scored were the most by Iowa in a loss since 2011 at Iowa State (44-41).

“Nate gave us a chance to win," Ferentz said. "He led our football team. He’s a tough guy."

A timeout lesson was learned.

Last week’s first-and-goal, fourth-quarter interception by Stanley at Penn State was a chaotic scene in which the best course of pre-snap action — calling a timeout — didn’t happen.

This time, when coach Kirk Ferentz ran on the field with the play clock winding down … the timeout was granted.

The Hawkeyes had first-and-goal at Purdue’s 5-yard line when a Ferentz timeout helped reset things. Stanley hit Nick Easley for a 4-yard pass out of the timeout, a really nice play call that set up Sargent’s go-ahead touchdown run with 10:19 to play.

Iowa took a step forward in the red zone.

Iowa's running game got the job done near the goal line. The Hawkeyes rushed for four touchdowns totaling five yards in distance, their first rushing touchdowns since Week 5 at Minnesota. Sargent had two, Ivory Kelly-Martin one and Stanley one on a sneak.

The Hawkeyes scored five touchdowns and a field goal on their six red-zone trips. That was after scoring just one non-special teams touchdown on their previous seven trips inside the 10. That's a credit to good play calling and a more physical, run-first approach.

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.