Leistikow: How Iowa's best week of practice turned into a 644-yard masterpiece
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Someone this week asked Kirk Ferentz if he sleeps well on the eve of Iowa football games.
The veteran coach’s response?
“If we practice well, I do.”
Ferentz conceded he got a good Friday-night sleep, which makes sense, considering the historic offensive show his team would unveil Saturday against Middle Tennessee State.
It’s a bit boring to hear about, but this football adage is filled with truth: You play how you practice.
And multiple Hawkeyes, in the aftermath of a 48-3 rout at Kinnick Stadium, reported that this was their best week of practice yet.
Tight end Shaun Beyer said guys were fresh and "flying around" this week. Defensive end A.J. Epenesa said the Nate Stanley-led offense was clicking. Offensive lineman Cole Banwart said simply: “The whole team was just jelling."
Ferentz said he's always uncertain how to handle idle weeks, noting he has a stack of varying files of how they've treated them in the past. This time, the coaches decided to go extremely light on physical contact with the veterans and give young players the bulk of practice reps.
The outcome: A complete performance and total domination. Iowa’s 644 yards of offense were the program’s most since 1997, when current offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz was 14 years old and his father was an NFL assistant coach with the Baltimore Ravens.
A great week of practice leading up to a Conference USA opponent on a sleepy morning at Kinnick Stadium is a great sign for this 4-0 team … and it made the outcome inevitable.
One of the most revered Hawkeyes of the 21-year Ferentz era, linebacker Josey Jewell, repeatedly would say this in interviews: Games are won during the week, not on Saturdays.
“It starts early in the week, Monday,” affirmed speedy wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette, whose 14-yard touchdown run pushed Iowa’s lead to 34-3 in the third quarter. “You’ve got to prepare and execute. Coming out here on Saturday, (then) it’s easy.”
One of the stretches for an Iowa team to have a special season is September, when this developmental program is figuring things out with new pieces.
But this group has gutted through that stretch. It survived lightning delays and a bitter rival in a hostile environment to squeak out an 18-17 win in Ames. It overcame a unusually high rash of injuries and an idle week to come out the other side stronger.
And, as far as the record goes, perfect.
“On paper, we’re 4-0, and that’s as good as we can be,” Epenesa said. “It’s exciting. We’re undefeated still. And we’ve got a big game coming next week.”
The Hawkeyes’ elite pass rusher is referring, of course, to the Oct. 5 showdown in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
But before we get to that, pause for a second and think about this: The last two Hawkeye teams to start 4-0 went on to hit 9-0 (in 2009) and 12-0 (in 2015).
If the 2019 Hawkeyes (ranked 14th nationally coming into Saturday's games) want to keep the good times going, this week should serve as a great lesson: Practice great, play great.
Stanley was sizzling again at quarterback. He threw some more beauties, including two touchdown passes to Brandon Smith, a gorgeous long ball up the left sideline to Smith-Marsette for 38 yards and zingers to Nico Ragaini and Beyer for 35 and 27 yards. Stanley has eight touchdowns, no interceptions and is hovering around his goal of 65% completions this season (76-for-118, 64.4%).
The Hawkeyes rolled up 351 yards rushing, fourth-most of the Ferentz era. The trio of Mekhi Sargent (versatile), Toren Young (powerful) and Tyler Goodson (dazzling) seems like a play-caller’s dream.
And that defense...
Although it seems to bend at times, it isn’t breaking. It’ll head to Ann Arbor allowing 8.5 points per game, which should rank in the top five nationally.
“We’re not satisfied,” Epenesa said. “We never are.”
If you’re a Hawkeye fan, you can feel good about the fact that your team looks about as good as you could hope. The biggest complaint is probably that the punt returner should do a better job picking up rolling punts.
If you’re Kirk Ferentz, you hope you get a good night's sleep next Friday in Ann Arbor before another 11 a.m. Central kick.
"The whole key right now, whole focus is trying to improve week-to-week," Ferentz said. "The guys took a big step forward, and we're thrilled to be 4-0 at this point and look forward to moving into conference play."
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.