Leistikow's final thoughts: Iowa's validating domination; Tristan Wirfs says he's fine

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Through two weeks of the Iowa football season, the list of complaints would seem to be pretty short.

A couple missed opportunities? Sure.

A few too many injuries? Of course.

An iffy punt-return game? Yes.

But the big-picture stuff is all humming: The quarterback, the running game, the line play on both sides of the ball and, yes, the kicking game. The 19th-ranked Hawkeyes were great in all those areas in Saturday's 30-0 thumping of Rutgers before a crowd of 61,808 at Kinnick Stadium

Surely, the head coach would find some things he doesn't like. So I asked him.

A.J. Epenesa pressures Rutgers' McLane Carter, which was representative of the defense's dominant day.

Kirk Ferentz pointed to tempo in the huddle; a few kick-coverage mistakes; a clock-management miscalculation that might've cost Iowa four points before halftime. That's it.

"A really decisive performance by our football team," Ferentz said. "And really a great way to start Big Ten play."

Iowa (2-0 overall) has gained 903 yards through two games; it's allowed only 370.

But with that, let me offer a history lesson.

Through two weeks in 2016, Iowa looked just as good — if not better — in its first two games. A rout of Miami (Ohio) and a 42-3 dismantling of Matt Campbell's first Iowa State team. 

Then in Week 3? A staggering home loss to FCS North Dakota State that spilled into what was an 8-5 season that fell short of big expectations.

The Hawkeyes need to keep their foot on the gas. That's why it was encouraging to hear defensive end A.J. Epenesa say this after the Hawkeyes allowed just 125 total yards.

"You're never satisfied," he said, "when you want to be great."

Even when Rutgers went four-wide with no tight ends, Iowa stuck with its 4-3 base defense.

With Kaevon Merriweather (foot) out for the game and Iowa’s secondary getting increasingly thinner, the comfort in trotting out a trio of experienced linebackers in Kristian Welch (middle), Djimon Colbert (weak-side) and Nick Niemann (outside) makes sense.

And for the second straight week, the 4-3 accomplished its primary objective: Stopping the run. And there wasn’t any of the 4-2-5, even though Ferentz advertised this week we would see it.

Miami (Ohio) didn’t have a run longer than nine yards last week; Rutgers’ longest tote Saturday was 10, and that’s saying something considering the playmaking ability of Isaih Pacheco (10 carries, 42 yards) and Raheem Blackshear (six carries, 30 yards). That allows the Iowa defense to get into a lot of advantageous third-down pass-rushing situations.

“It’s what they want us to do," said Colbert, who collected his first career interception as part of a three-turnover day for the defense. "It’s worked for us these first couple of weeks. Nick’s done a great job out there at the Leo position.”

► MoreIowa defense takes control of Rutgers in punishing second quarter

More: What we learned from Iowa's dominant 30-0 win over Rutgers

Leistikow: Validating domination as No. 19 Hawkeyes roll past Rutgers

Already down Alaric Jackson, Iowa cannot afford to lose Tristan Wirfs ahead of the Cy-Hawk showdown.

But the powerful tackle was noticeably limping in the first quarter with what appeared to be a left leg injury. Wirfs (6-foot-5, 322 pounds) didn’t miss any action due to the injury and remained his usual, dominant self … but was often shaking and stretching the leg during breaks in the action.

After the game, Wirfs addressed the injury in only vague terms.

"I’m feeling pretty good," he said. "Just got rolled up on a little bit. I’ll be just fine."

Ferentz likes to say that nobody’s 100% once a season begins, so playing through dings is nothing unexpected. But there are a handful of players Iowa can’t afford to lose, and Wirfs — a projected top-10 NFL Draft pick — is one of them.

Iowa might've set an unofficial record for offensive-line juggling within a single game.

Even mid-series, the Hawkeyes were shuttling in substitutions at times. It was an organized fire drill as Iowa muddles through without Jackson. And for the second straight week, it looked pretty good.

The starting five of Wirfs, Landan Paulsen, Tyler Linderbaum, Kyler Schott and Levi Paulsen got regular assistance from Mark Kallenberger (at left tackle) and Cody Ince (at left guard). When Kallenberger came in, Wirfs would flip to the right side. Landan played both left and right guard. Iowa totaled 194 rushing yards, with 129 coming after halftime.

"That’s a credit to how close we are. ... We don’t have cliques in our own room. We are all pretty close," Wirfs said. "We all trust each other. Going out, it doesn’t matter who’s next to you. You trust him to do his job, he trusts you to do yours. That plays a big role.”

It was nice to see Ivory Kelly-Martin with a spring in his step.

Kelly-Martin, last year's No. 1 running back entering the season, still doesn't have a carry in 2019 as Iowa is rolling with Mekhi Sargent (13 carries, 59 yards) and Toren Young (nine carries, 59 yards) as a 1-2 backfield punch. He's even fallen to fourth in the pecking order with Tyler Goodson (10 carries, 53 yards) seeing a decent workload for the second straight week.

But when Iowa needed a big play, Kelly-Martin delivered. With the score 7-0 in the second quarter, Kelly-Martin collected a soft screen pass and gained 25 yards on a play that set up Iowa's second touchdown. Ferentz made sure to praise Kelly-Martin for the "spark play" in his opening remarks after the game.

LeVar Woods needs to go back to the drawing board on punt returns.

The Hawkeyes struggled two years ago just to field punts, let alone return them. They got a lot better with Kyle Groeneweg, a fifth-year senior, in 2018. But freshman Nico Ragaini doesn’t yet have the knack for the position.

Ragaini lost 5 yards on his first return, and that was after catching it at his own 8. He later made a fair catch at his own 5, a curious decision. And then to start the third quarter, he couldn’t cut off a bouncing punt by Rutgers’ Adam Korsak that would result in a 69-yard net that pinned Iowa at its own 1-yard line.

Korsak was amazing; give him credit. But Iowa started a staggering five drives inside its own 10 and a sixth at its 11.

Ihmir Smith-Marsette, the day’s most game-breaking player, was listed as the No. 1 punt returner entering the season but Ragaini ended up being the guy in Week 1. It might be time for Woods, Iowa's special-teams coordinator, to put Smith-Marsette back to the No. 1 spot.

On the positive side of special teams, it looks like Iowa has upgraded its punting game.

Michael Sleep-Dalton’s Week 1 grade was “incomplete” after getting just one opportunity against Miami (Ohio). But twice punting from his own end zone, Sleep-Dalton cranked out booming, high punts of 52 and 54 yards. That was not in the arsenal in either of the past two years.

Sleep-Dalton, the graduate transfer from Arizona State, also delivered a nice pooch punt from Iowa’s 45 that landed at the Rutgers 5 and backed up. That’s not luck. I watched Sleep-Dalton during the Kids Day open practice repeatedly drop punts inside the opposing 10 like a 9-iron into a putting green.

Sleep-Dalton finished the day averaging six punts for a 48.3-yard average. It’s OK to feel at peace about Iowa’s punting for the first time since Ron Coluzzi in 2016.

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.