Leistikow: Hawkeyes find needed joy, show what's possible in dismantling Michigan State
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Set up with great field position after Charlie Jones’ 31-yard punt return and his team already ahead 14-0, Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras took the snap and zipped a pass toward Tyrone Tracy Jr. on a short crossing route.
The football bounced off Tracy’s hands and into the air.
Last week? Nooooooo.
This week? No worries.
Fellow Hawkeye Brandon Smith alertly camped under the deflected pass and pulled it in for a 12-yard gain.
The play was a perfect encapsulation of how the things that went wrong for Iowa during its 0-2 start turned out just fine Saturday in a 49-7 blowout of visiting Michigan State.
“That was nice,” Petras said with a laugh, “that we caught it this week.”
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In last week’s 21-20 home loss to Northwestern, two Petras passes went off the hands of tight end Sam LaPorta and became crushing interceptions.
The Hawkeyes badly needed a game like this, a day like this where they played great and could do almost no wrong. The only hiccup was a rare missed field goal by Keith Duncan, but nobody cares about three missed points when you score seven touchdowns and destroy an old rival.
“We needed a win,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said in his opening remarks after breaking a tie with Joe Paterno to become No. 4 for all-time wins (163) as a Big Ten Conference coach. “We needed to play well.”
Six plays after Smith’s good-luck catch, Tyler Goodson charged into the end zone for a 21-0 Hawkeye lead with 11 minutes, 16 seconds left in the second quarter.
The rout was on.
And after 54-yard touchdowns from the special teams (Charlie Jones punt return) and defense (Riley Moss interception return), the rout was really on — 35-0 at halftime.
When it was over, Iowa had scored more points in a game than it ever had against the Spartans in 48 meetings.
“We talked all week that we need to show up at 11:02 (a.m.) for the kick and be ready to play,” Petras said. “Collectively, we did that.”
The difference of being 1-2 instead of 0-3 was worn on Hawkeye players’ faces and in their voices.
“It was great. I haven’t felt that good in a long time, honestly,” Detroit native and left tackle Alaric Jackson said. “Getting this win, that big at home, was a really good feeling for us.”
After a trying offseason and a trying last week-and-a-half that saw three players enter the transfer portal and star receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette get suspended after an OWI, a loss Saturday would have been beyond deflating — not only for this team but a fan base that had high hopes for this coronavirus-shortened season.
No, one impressive win doesn’t undo the damage of two Big Ten West losses to start the season. The Hawkeyes can’t fool themselves thinking they’re legitimate factors in the divisional race. But, this type of a win does inspire confidence of what’s possible and that productive improvements are being made.
A Twitter account associated with the football program noted earlier this week that Iowa has the fifth-youngest team in FBS (and the youngest in the Big Ten), with 71.5% of its roster being made up of true freshmen (31), redshirt freshmen (30) and sophomores (27).
That was a good reminder, to all of us (including in the media), that this Hawkeye team needs a little grace for weeks that don’t turn out great. And, we should probably be braced for more such weeks ahead.
But at least we know that the Hawkeyes’ ceiling can be pretty high when they put things together.
“It definitely gives us confidence going into next week, knowing that this team is capable of winning,” said Goodson, one of the team’s young rising stars who deliver 113 rushing yards Saturday. “We can do that over and over if we want to."
The defense was great, easily playing its best game of the season. Phil Parker wasn’t about to lose to his alma mater for the fourth straight time.
LeVar Woods’ special teams were fantastic; Jones was a continued revelation as a punt returner, and Tory Taylor looks to be Iowa’s best punter since (I’ll say it) Reggie Roby.
And credit to Brian Ferentz, who got (deserved) heat for last week’s poor plan of attack against Northwestern. Saturday, the offensive coordinator delivered an impressive first drive of play calls and overall balanced performance: 226 yards rushing (5.55 per carry) and 179 passing (6.2 per attempt).
Kirk Ferentz did a nice job afterward explaining how precious every game is and why it was important for the team to play well.
His guys were hurting more than anyone after an 0-2 start, and they knew opportunities were already dwindling. Already, three-eighths of the regular season is over.
“We needed success, and I don't mean that like success-or-else mode,” Ferentz said. “… But we just needed to experience some success.
“Right along with that, you have to earn it. You can't sit around counting on the other team to mess up, so you go home happy. That's not the way it works. We just needed to work hard, have a good week of practice and then show it on the field. And hopefully we took a positive step today.”
Iowa certainly did. Road trips to Minnesota and Penn State are next. Those are never easy.
Saturday, though, was more about a game ball for Ferentz.
"Whenever I retire, whenever that day comes — hopefully it's not for quite a while, although I'm sure some people are wondering about that — then we'll sit around and talk about stuff like that,” Ferentz said. “It's neat. But what's more important is we got a win today. I'm really, really happy for our players.”
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.