Iowa sophomore Riley Moss was subbed in for Matt Hankins, who was benched early in the third quarter, and immediately recorded an interception. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Riley Moss' revenge against Purdue was sweet.
The young cornerback from Ankeny who was burned for multiple touchdowns in a loss a year ago in West Lafayette delivered the game-turning moment of Iowa's 26-20 win against the Boilermakers on homecoming Saturday before a full house at Kinnick Stadium.
He was a true-freshman starter last year in a 38-36 loss, when Matt Hankins was injured and Purdue exploited a young Hawkeyes secondary for four touchdown passes.
“Last year wasn’t the greatest game for me," Moss said Saturday. "But I took steps this entire year, and I always had it in the back of my mind that, ‘This is never going to happen again.’”
This year, the wait for redemption has been extra long. A serious hip injury suffered in the first game sidelined Moss until last week. On Saturday, Moss' number (33) was literally called in the the third quarter when frustrated defensive coordinator Phil Parker yanked Hankins mid-series with Purdue driving in a 9-7 game.
Just before Moss was thrown into the game, Parker told his backup: "33, be ready."
One play later, he was in.
Two plays later, he became a hero.
Moss' interception of Jack Plummer, on a throw toward David Bell, at Iowa's 21-yard line, reversed the entire tone of the game and ultimately led to the Hawkeyes' first touchdown. Moss played the throw perfectly, undercutting Bell's path to the ball, and ran the pickoff back to the Iowa 28. Hankins, the recipient of a Parker lashing after getting burned repeatedly in the first half, never returned.
“There was a corner (route) behind me and the running back came in front of me, so I was playing both of them," Moss said of the pick. "I saw the quarterback kind of look at the corner, so I started to sink a little bit. He threw it, and I high-pointed it."
The Hawkeyes' much-maligned offense responded to Moss' pick with a 72-yard touchdown drive, which was capped by Tyler Goodson's first career score. And instead of Purdue going in for the lead, Iowa had a 16-7 edge and let its top-five national defense hang on from there.
Moss nearly had a second interception later in the game. It was quite a triumphant return, considering the seriousness of his Week 1 injury.
"I was pretty close to dislocating my hip, and that would have been the entire season," Moss said. "I just did everything the training staff told me to do, and did it to the best of my ability so I could come back as quick as possible.”
For Iowa, it was just in the nick of time.
This was not a perfect day for the 22nd-ranked Hawkeyes, but it was ultimately a successful one. They needed a win after consecutive tight-game losses to Big Ten Conference heavyweights. And now they are 5-2 overall, 2-2 in the league with Saturday's much-needed result. Purdue fell to 2-5, 1-3, despite a big day from Bell (13 catches, 197 yards).
Iowa stayed true to an offensive-line rotation, as it searches for answers at guard.
The Hawkeyes worked in four guards on their first three possessions and continued to juggle lineups after the Michigan and Penn State losses exposed that position as the team’s greatest weakness.
Landan Paulsen (left guard) and Mark Kallenberger (right) got the start for a second straight week. But freshmen Cody Ince (left) and Justin Britt (right) also got their share of playing time Saturday, as coaches look to evaluate who gives them the best chance to win going forward.
“Those four guys you can trust having in the game; and it gives good breathers for each other," center Tyler Linderbaum said. "The chemistry was fine. We’ve been playing with each other since spring ball.”
There was some good and bad.
The good: Nate Stanley wasn’t sacked until the fourth quarter. He had been tormented to the tune of 10 sacks and quarterback pressures the previous two weeks.
The bad: The run game was largely ineffective, and that’s a big disappointment against a Purdue rush defense that has not been good. Despite trying to establish the run in the first half, Iowa managed just 46 yards on 19 attempts — a paltry 2.4-yard average — in the opening 30 minutes.
Iowa did briefly flex its run-game muscle for a crucial two-play, 35-yard touchdown drive on runs of 21 and 14 yards by Mekhi Sargent. Iowa had 30 rushes for 70 yards before that point. That touchdown rendered Purdue's score with 24 seconds to go meaningless.
“Not where we want to be, but we were able to take some time off the clock with the run game," right tackle Tristan Wirfs said. (Iowa held the ball for 35 minutes to Purdue's 25.). "Better than it has been.”
Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz delivers his opening statement after the Hawkeyes improved to 5-2 overall. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central
Iowa’s curious decision to take three timeouts into the halftime locker room deserves criticism.
Iowa had the ball at its own 25 with its full complement of timeouts, with a senior quarterback against a deficient defense. But with a 9-7 lead and 38 seconds to go, Iowa ran what was essentially a kneel-down play, a 1-yard plunge to Sargent.
Other than a turnover, there was no risk of giving Purdue the ball back with any reasonable chance to score again. Gaining 40 to 45 yards in 38 seconds (to get into Keith Duncan field-goal range) is completely reasonable. But Iowa chose not to try, and fans rightfully expressed their displeasure at head coach Kirk Ferentz’s decision.
Ferentz's rationale wasn't very good. He said he was upset that Ihmir Smith-Marsette had called a fair catch instead of trying to make a play on the return. Also, Iowa had only four offensive linemen in the huddle before Ince was beckoned to rush onto the field. At that point, he just wanted to get to the locker room.
"I was a little ticked, we must have had a lack of communication on the kick return," Ferentz said. "I thought it was a returnable ball and we fair caught it. But that's one more thing we better get cleaned up. I was not in a good mood at that point, quite frankly."
Emotions got the best of Ferentz there.
Iowa's offensive MVP left the game with what looked like a significant injury, but the early prognosis isn't bad.
Wide receiver Brandon Smith couldn't put weight on his right leg after a 5-yard reception late in the game that gave him nine grabs for 106 yards, both career highs. He was helped off the field by teammates.
Ferentz said early diagnostics saw "maybe a bone bruise ... so we'll keep our fingers crossed on that."
Iowa does have its second idle week after the Oct. 26 game at Northwestern, which would offer some additional recovery time before the Nov. 9 showdown at Wisconsin.
But Smith was fantastic, looking like the big-time "X" receiver that Iowa's offense needs. He also had a 30-yard gain wiped out because a wide receiver was misaligned pre-snap.
"No matter what type of ball I throw to him," Stanley said, "he’s going to give himself a chance to make that catch.”
When Iowa got the ball at Purdue's 47-yard line in the third quarter, it snapped a string of 35 consecutive drives without starting in opponent territory.
That's a staggering stat that dates to the kneel-downs at Iowa State, following a fumble recovery off a botched punt return. One of the big stories of Iowa's offensive woes in recent weeks was poor starting field position. For example, Iowa's best starting spot in 11 drives against Penn State was its own 29.
The Hawkeyes had their best Big Ten rushing-defense performance in six years.
Granted, Purdue only attempted 18 rushes (including one sack) to gain 33 yards, the lowest total Iowa has allowed against a conference opponent since 2013, when it yielded 30 to Minnesota. But making Purdue one-dimensional was one of Iowa's defensive priorities Saturday.
"If you take that for granted, then next thing you know they're hitting you for 8 yards, 10 yards," Ferentz said, "and those are really painful."
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.