IOWA CITY, Ia. — One good way to avoid a letdown?
Inject urgency into the gameplan.
It was clear from the coin toss before No. 14 Iowa’s game against Middle Tennessee State that the Hawkeyes wanted to be aggressive in what turned out to be a 48-3 rout before 63,706 fans at Kinnick Stadium.
Iowa's captains didn’t hesitate after winning the midfield toss. They wanted the football.
What unfolded next was a fast-paced (by Iowa standards) demolition of precision (by any measure). Iowa gained 358 yards in the first half alone, a total that topped six of Iowa’s game totals of 2018. The Hawkeyes didn't stop there on their way to their third 4-0 start in 11 years.
By the time the day was over, they had racked up the most yards of the Kirk Ferentz era (644). The previous mark was a 613-yard day against Minnesota in 2005.
"We had an advantage physically," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "They are a good football team and a really good program, very well-coached. But we did have a physical edge, and that worked out for us."
Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz knew his team could set the tone against a Blue Raiders defense that allowed Duke to score on its first seven possessions two weeks ago. Iowa twice brought no-huddle, hurry-up action on an opening drive that covered 65 yards in nine plays and was capped by Mekhi Sargent’s 5-yard touchdown run.
The hurry-up trend was so unexpected that the Blue Raiders were still caught off-guard when Iowa did it again on its second drive. They had 13 players on the field on one snap, but Toren Young ran for 16 yards anyway. The drive ended with Keith Duncan’s 49-yard field goal.
Third drive? One more play with tempo after Tyrone Tracy Jr.’s 33-yard reception, a quick 8-yard run by Sargent. Stanley hit Brandon Smith for an 18-yard touchdown on the next play.
Iowa was ahead 17-0, before Middle Tennessee State ran its seventh offensive snap. It was already game over.
Was using tempo a case of Iowa manufacturing a little pace to make sure players weren’t sleep-walking against a Conference USA opponent in between big road games at Iowa State and Michigan? Or was it a case of showing some tempo on film with the Big Ten gauntlet ahead?
“It’s something we’ve always worked on," wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette explained. "To go there today and show it, it was pretty good. We wanted to (do) that so we will be able to use it in the future. It worked pretty well today. I would say it’ll go into the gameplan more often moving on.”
After 678 carries, a hard-to-believe streak came to an end.
When Young rumbled 52 yards early in the third quarter, he became the first Hawkeye in that many tries (covering 17 games, dating to November 2017) to break a run of longer than 40 yards.
The play also delivered Young’s first career 100-yard rushing game (11 carries, 131 yards) and surely served as a sigh of relief for second-year running backs coach Derrick Foster.
Foster’s running back room certainly looks well-rounded four games into the season, but those big plays have been elusive. Iowa looks more capable of springing big backfield plays than it has since 2016, thanks in part to an offensive line that is rotating big, fresh bodies and mowing defenders down.
When Smith-Marsette took a third-quarter jet sweep around right end, it was so well-blocked that tight end Nate Wieting didn’t even have a body to worry about. He could just celebrate Smith-Marsette’s 14-yard score that gave Iowa a 34-3 lead.
For the game, Iowa rushed for 351 yards — fourth-most of the 21-year Ferentz era — on 51 attempts.
“We wanted to come out and be physical with them," tight end Shaun Beyer said. "I think that’s what we did.”
Alaric Jackson was in uniform and went through warmups, a good sign that the big-time left tackle will be ready for Michigan.
Although Iowa’s injury list has been discouraging, Jackson appears to be on track to get back on the field for the first time since suffering a knee sprain and bone bruise in the first quarter of Week 1.
Iowa did the same thing with Cole Banwart against Rutgers by suiting up the first-team right guard but not playing him until the following week at Iowa State. Ferentz said Jackson was able to practice this week.
"His conditioning level is probably not what it needs to be, but I think he feels pretty good right now," Ferentz said. "We'll know more after we practice next week, but it's encouraging, at least."
If indeed Jackson returns against his home-state team, that would essentially restore the Hawkeyes’ ideal No. 1 offensive line for their biggest stretch of the season.
Ferentz added that free safety Kaevon Merriweather, who started in Week 1 but hasn't played since with a foot injury, was "in the same boat" as Jackson and could return in Ann Arbor.
More good news: Ferentz didn't think anyone was significantly hurt in this game. Strong safety Geno Stone went to the locker room with what appeared to be an arm injury in the first quarter (and was replaced by true freshman Dane Belton, who saw his first collegiate action), but returned to play.
"Next trick is how guys wake up in the morning, but as far as I know, I think we are in pretty good shape," Ferentz said.
There were a lot of eye-popping statistics from the Hawkeyes on Saturday, but one number stands out as a winning number.
For the third straight game, Iowa didn't commit a turnover. In fact, the Hawkeyes have just one turnover (a lost fumble by Brady Ross) in 296 offensive snaps this season. That kind of ball security is impressive (best in the nation) and especially critical entering the schedule slog ahead.
"Certainly offensively, we have done a good job with our ball security," Ferentz said. "Special teams, the same way. And defensively, not giving up the big play (Middle Tennessee's longest play was 21 yards), which we were victimized by last time we were out there (for two long touchdowns at Iowa State). All in all, really pleased."
Why was offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs so giddy after backup quarterback Spencer Petras' 1-yard touchdown sneak with 47 seconds to go?
It wasn't that the junior from Mount Vernon was wanting to run up the score on the Blue Raiders. He was elated to see a young freshman walk-on like Nick DeJong of Pella, who was on the field as an offensive lineman, be a part of a celebratory moment. Wirfs remembered feeling that way as a green true freshman against North Texas in 2017.
"Watching the younger guys get in and make some plays, I get excited," Wirfs said. "It's just really fun."
The touchdown sneak on fourth-and-goal also kept Iowa's nation-leading statistic of red-zone scoring percentage in tact. The Hawkeyes are now 17-for-17 on cashing in with points when they get inside the opponents' 20-yard line.
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.