Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz improved to 18-1 in season openers since 2001 with a 38-14 win against Miami of Ohio. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central
IOWA CITY, Ia. — If the real 2019 Iowa Hawkeyes were the ones who showed up in the third quarter, you have to feel good about this season.
Going forward, though, they'll need to get rid of most of that first-half version.
A lackluster start turned into an impressive finish in Saturday night's 38-14 season-opening victory against Miami of Ohio before a sold-out crowd of 69,250 at Kinnick Stadium.
What we saw from the good Hawkeyes after coming out of the locker room with a shaky 10-7 lead:
- A crisper and more powerful run game, spearheaded by Mekhi Sargent's 91-yard night.
- A versatile pass game, led by an array of targets for Nate Stanley — including Michigan transfer Oliver Martin, on a beautiful 9-yard touchdown catch three days after he was ruled eligible to play.
- And a more assertive defensive line that took control of a game.
On an opening weekend in which every team except Wisconsin and Illinois in the Big Ten West looked shaky, No. 19 Iowa ultimately took care of business.
"The bottom line is, we're where we want to be right now. We're 1-0," head coach Kirk Ferentz said. "Plenty of opportunity to improve."
Stanley finished the night 21-for-30 for 252 yards (that's a 70% completion rate, a major point of emphasis for the senior) and three touchdowns, giving him 55 for his career. Just 19 more to tie Chuck Long.
Sargent racked up 156 all-purpose yards for the night — 91 rushing, 65 receiving.
The Hawkeyes rolled up 465 yards of offense to Miami's 245.
It wasn't a perfect night. But, left tackle Alaric Jackson's knee injury notwithstanding, it was a very good night.
"It was a good night," linebacker Djimon Colbert said. "It was a good starting point. We're excited where we're going. We think it's going to be a good season."
Some things we didn’t see (much) from Iowa’s defense: The 4-2-5 and a deep line rotation.
The Hawkeyes opened the game with Nick Niemann at outside linebacker in a 4-3 and stuck with it for much of the game, even in many passing situations.
Obviously, much of the offseason talk was Iowa’s comfort level with the 4-2-5 base (and freshman D.J. Johnson at the hybrid “cash” position). When Johnson was in, he ended up being out of position for a 20-yard completion to Luke Mayock that set up Miami’s second-quarter touchdown. Senior Michael Ojemudia seemed to be upset with Johnson after the play, and we didn’t see Johnson much after that.
Iowa went almost exclusively 4-3 in the second half. Miami gained only 105 second-half yards.
“We were trying to go back and forth a lot (in the first half), but we just kind of decided it would be better to stay in that one defense," Colbert said. "That was the coaches’ choice. … The second half, we just went out and played Iowa football.”
And then the talk of an eight- or 10-man defensive-line rotation didn’t materialize until late.
The starting four — Chauncey Golston, Cedrick Lattimore, Brady Reiff and A.J. Epenesa — played almost every first-half snap. Daviyon Nixon got some time as a backup tackle, and Amani Jones got spot duty in third-and-long situations as a left defensive end. But once again, Iowa seemed to go with the more comfortable group in a tight matchup.
A converted linebacker, Jones did get home for Iowa's first sack of the season on a third-down blitz in the third quarter. Smart move to get an attacking, fast player onto the field. Jones showed a game-changing burst off the edge.
“We’ve got a lot of things to fix up," Epenesa said, "and we’ll start (Sunday).”
Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa discusses one of his closest friends on the team after his first career start. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central
A nice early wrinkle showed off a faster Stanley.
Hey, it was just one play, but the senior quarterback cranked out a career-long 16-yard run on third-and-4 during the first quarter. A designed run.
Yes, Stanley executed the read option, faking a handoff and sprinting left for a chunk play down the left sideline. If that can be even a threatened part of the Iowa run game, it'd be a bonus going forward. He also later had a 15-yard scramble.
"It was great to see him pull the ball down and run," Ferentz said. "That's tough on a defense, if a guy will do that."
Stanley did miss a second-quarter opportunity to better use his legs. Although he did a good job scrambling out of trouble on a second-and-6, he foolishly threw the ball away while still in the pocket — incurring a 15-yard intentional grounding penalty. Fortunately, he made up for the error by completing a 41-yard screen pass to Mekhi Sargent on third-and-21.
Kaevon Merriweather was a step behind in his first career start at free safety.
The true sophomore got the nod in a tight position battle over walk-on Jack Koerner. He was late to the ball in what turned out to be a 30-yard completion to Luke Mayock, then gave up a 20-yard touchdown reception to Andrew Homer in the fourth quarter on a ball that was thrown up for grabs.
This was the position that defensive coordinator Phil Parker seemed most concerned about leading up to the season. Better to take some lumps in a win than a loss. But now we know why Parker was worried.
It wasn't just Merriweather. Overall, Iowa's secondary definitely showed some inconsistency.
Welcome back, Keith Duncan.
It was two Outback Bowls ago that he last attempted a field goal, but he was back out there Saturday to attempt a 21-yarder in the first quarter for Iowa's first points of the season.
Now a redshirt junior walk-on, Duncan was told earlier this week that he had earned the nod over Caleb Shudak to handle placements, a job he held as a true freshman in 2016. Duncan converted all five PATs he tried. Shudak handled kickoffs.
"I feel very comfortable," Duncan said. "Opportunity is a big word we use here. ... I'm still taking my opportunity and kicking as best I can. Hopefully it'll go the way I want to."
The first true freshman to play for the Hawkeyes was a bit of a surprise.
It was offensive lineman Justin Britt, who just 12 months ago tore an ACL in the second game of his high school season at Indianapolis' Warren Central.
But Britt was the first rookie into the game Saturday, in field-goal protection. Later, during Iowa's third touchdown drive, he was the right guard for an offense that cruised 56 yards in three plays.
Britt is intriguing, because he was a rare prospect that was personally recruited by Ferentz. You know if Ferentz sees something in you, that's something special.
On Sargent's 2-yard touchdown run, tight end Sam LaPorta became the second true freshman to log a snap.
Then it was Tyler Goodson, the much-discussed rookie from Georgia, who was the third running back into the game — notably ahead of Ivory Kelly-Martin. Goodson, in limited fourth-quarter work (nine carries, 36 yards), showed an impressive burst. Wide receiver Desmond Hutson was the fourth and final freshman to play.
"Tyler, he's just done real well this whole month," Ferentz said. "And for a first-year guy, (he) seems pretty unaffected by it. I'd say the same thing about Britt and LaPorta. It's interesting seeing them in the locker room. No big deal; it was just another game for them. Those guys are a little more poised than I would have been, I know that, at that age."
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.