Leistikow: Exciting punting didn't mean winning at Purdue, but Iowa banks on encouraging signs
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — After his first season-opening loss since 2013 as Iowa’s head coach, Kirk Ferentz’s final question in the postgame news conference was about new Hawkeyes’ punter Tory Taylor.
“Tory’s a great way to finish this up,” Ferentz replied, “because he’s probably representative of our football team.”
Taylor became an instant cult hero among the Hawkeye fan base during Saturday’s 24-20 loss to Purdue. The burly and handsome 23-year-old freshman import from Australia exhibited a tantalizing ability to control the football — which he showed during pregame warmups while dribbling the oblong pigskin as if it were a basketball — and raw power.
His first punt in his first game of American football soared 50 yards, high above Ross-Ade Stadium, with no chance for a return. His second went for a booming 52, bailing the Hawkeyes out of rotten first-quarter field position. He later artfully placed a 52-yarder inside Purdue’s 1-yard line, as if to show off for his new following of Iowa fans.
For a fan base that embraces the “Punting is winning” mantra with a wink and a smile, Taylor provided an injection of on-brand excitement. Yet of his six punts Saturday, two were a little underwhelming — a 35-yarder that just got a little too much air, and a low-angled 30-yarder that was meant to roll another 20 but died after hitting the ground.
When you sized up the day, Taylor averaged 44.2 yards a punt. That's good. But it seemed like he was way better than that.
In a nutshell, doesn’t that perfectly sum up the Hawkeyes’ opening performance against Purdue? There was clearly potential for a high ceiling, but there were kinks to iron out.
That’s why Ferentz said this, as an analogy to Taylor: “There were a lot of good things (Saturday). If we can keep doing those things well and then clean up the other ones, we’re going to have a chance to win some football games.”
I realize that it’s a very 2020 thing to instantly jump to the negative or critical spin. But let’s not fall into the trap of surrendering the season, after waiting 302 days between games. Iowa lost on a day it should have won, but it's hardly an instant train wreck.
All the Iowa penalties? Of course there were too many (10 for 100 yards), and they were uncharacteristic of a Ferentz-coached team.
The inconsistency on both sides of the ball? It was apparent, but remember that Iowa typically opens the season (by design) against a nonconference team it can usually beat … so it can make these mistakes and be better when the opponents get tougher.
Even so, Iowa’s 460 yards Saturday marked its highest offensive total in its last 16 Big Ten Conference games, dating to a 42-16 rout of Indiana in 2018 when Nate Stanley threw six touchdown passes.
Spencer Petras (22-for-39, 265 yards, no turnovers) missed throws, but he showed a command for the offense and a smooth set of mechanics. Tyler Goodson and Mekhi Sargent (combined 208 yards on 31 touches from scrimmage) each lost a critical fumble but showed the most excitement from Iowa's backfield in at least four years. Sam LaPorta (five catches, 71 yards) is looking like a sure star at tight end.
The defense? It needs to shore up its run-stopping, and Phil Parker has earned the benefit of the doubt to tinker with his strategy and combinations. Getting healthier at linebacker will help.
After the game, Petras correctly pointed out that the only goal Iowa lost Saturday is an undefeated season. The Hawkeyes probably need to go at least 6-1 the rest of the way to have a fair shot to win the West Division title. But keep in mind that this coronavirus-impacted season is going to be wildly unpredictable, with crazy swings possible from one week to the next.
The teams that stick together and can quickly correct their mistakes will find success by mid-December. The ones that begin finger-pointing and negativity after Week 1 could unravel quickly.
“It’s going to hurt. It’s going to be hard,” Petras said. “We’ll watch the tape tomorrow. Let it hurt. Then come Monday, we’re onto Northwestern.”
Ferentz finished his answer to the Taylor question by talking about his 0-1 team. He said there’s “a lot to be encouraged by as a coach,” and added, “We’ve got a lot of good guys on our team. I’m really optimistic they’re going to respond the right way.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.