Leistikow's thoughts: Rocky Lombardi hounded by familiar Hawkeyes in Iowa's 49-7 rout
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Before Saturday’s trip to Iowa City, Michigan State quarterback Rocky Lombardi said he had this game circled 4½ years ago, back when he committed to the Spartans as a junior at West Des Moines Valley High School.
It looks like his fellow combatants in Central Iowa had this one circled, too.
Lombardi was intercepted by Jack Koerner (of Dowling Catholic) and Riley Moss (of Ankeny Centennial) and received pressure from Joe Evans (Ames), John Waggoner (Dowling) and the rest of the Hawkeye defense in Iowa’s 49-7 rout at Kinnick Stadium.
"This is not what I wanted to do, coming home," Lombardi said afterward.
"I think I just tried to do a little bit too much. ... We kind of needed to make some plays, and I probably overstepped my boundaries a little bit."
Lombardi received an unwelcome greeting on his first drive of the game. Evans' first of three quarterback hurries affected Lombardi’s fifth attempt, which sailed into the arms of former rival Koerner.
MORE IOWA FOOTBALL COVERAGE
- Analysis: Charlie Jones' special-teams work gives Iowa lift
- What we learned: The big takeaways from Saturday's rout
- Leistikow column: Iowa finds needed joy, shows its potential
Iowa’s offense turned Koerner's pick into a 14-0 lead, and the defense never really relented.
It was a fantastic display of team defense and, perhaps fittingly, was punctuated by a pick-six from Moss late in the second quarter.
Moss under-cut a Lombardi throw toward the left sideline, dodged a few Spartans and flashed his track speed to run back the interception 54 yards for an Iowa touchdown and a 35-0 lead. One of the players who threw a key block to make the runback happen was Evans, the former Little Cyclone.
“We were in Cover 2. One disappeared, two was vertical, so I sank," Moss said. "Really, the ball literally … was a perfect throw to me. I just took it back.
"I couldn’t have returned it without Joe Evans or any of those D-linemen, so props to them."
How fitting is this?
Moss was the player who intercepted Lombardi’s final pass attempt of his high school career. Moss’ pickoff of Lombardi in the Class 4A quarterfinals in 2016 clinched Centennial’s 14-10 win and a trip to the UNI-Dome.
And Koerner also had a previous pick of Lombardi, when the two were juniors in high school. Koerner's interception sealed a 2015 Dowling regular-season win against Valley at Drake Stadium.
Moss and Koerner have nothing but respect for Lombardi; they chatted on the field afterward before heading their separate ways.
“We were excited to face Rocky again," Moss said. "It was kind of fun to relive those memories.”
Lombardi finished the day 17-for-37 for 223 yards and three interceptions. He almost coughed up another Iowa touchdown, but Daviyon Nixon's fumble return was overturned as an incomplete pass on video review.
Iowa defensive end Chauncey Golston was confident in film study that a little pass pressure would go a long way. He notched 1½ sacks, Nixon had another dominant game and the secondary cleaned up.
"The D-linemen were talking about when (Lombardi) sees pressure, you can see it," Golston said. "He flinches and stuff like that. So we knew that if we got pressure early and consistent, that we would get high passes and stuff like that. That happened a few times on key third downs."
For all of Iowa's worry about Michigan State’s big plays on offense, Phil Parker’s defense snuffed them out.
Open space for the guys in white was hard to find. The Spartans’ first five possessions netted just 57 yards and two first downs on 20 snaps, with none of those plays going for more than nine yards. Iowa was up 21-0 by that point and well on its way to a much-needed, feel-good blowout victory against an old rival it hadn’t beaten since 2012.
Fleet freshman receiver Ricky White, who had 196 yards receiving in Michigan State’s upset at Michigan last week, was a non-factor and didn’t have his first catch until the fourth quarter. Top transfer receiver Jayden Reed was held to one catch for seven yards.
Lombardi hit two long plays to Jalen Nailor, beautiful throws of 56 and 57 yards. But that was about it. Michigan State's other 68 plays from scrimmage netted 173 yards (2.54 per play).
“We really understood that the only way we would lose this game," Moss said, "is if we do it to ourselves and we give up the big plays."
Tyler Goodson’s 71-yard burst on Iowa’s first snap of the second half sent a message.
First, the Hawkeyes ran the ball out of a shotgun formation. That was something that was sorely lacking in last week’s 21-20 loss to Northwestern. Amazing what a spread-out formation can do for the running game.
"Inside zone out of the gun," said Goodson, who had half of Iowa's rushing yards (113 of 226) on just 14 carries. "From the snap, I could tell the middle of the field was going to be wide-open."
Second, it set up Iowa to break a trend that I no longer need to dwell on. Three plays later, the Hawkeyes scored a second-half touchdown against a Big Ten opponent for the first time in 29 drives (not including one set of kneel-downs) when Mekhi Sargent plowed in from 2 yards out to give Iowa a 42-7 lead.
Furthermore, Iowa hadn’t scored a third-quarter point in its previous six Big Ten games. That streak ended, too.
It’s not like Iowa needed a ton of ammo from its offense in the second half of this one, but it was nice to see a little killer instinct coming out of the locker room. Creating a five-touchdown cushion, right after Michigan State put together its first scoring drive, helped the Hawkeyes to get some backups in the game later.
Spencer Petras’ first-half numbers continue to be very good.
Although his three-interception second half last week against Northwestern drew plenty of criticism, it should be noted that the sophomore quarterback has been awfully steady in the first and second quarters through three games. That's something to build on.
Petras was 12-for-19 for 121 yards in Saturday's first half, a line that included a really nice touchdown throw to Brandon Smith, one in which he gave his senior wide receiver a chance to make a play on the ball in the end zone on third-and-12.
For the season, Petras’ first-half line is 40-for-64 (62.5% completions), 433 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions. You’ll take that. It shows the potential that coaches see in him.
His second-half numbers (23-for-52, 225 yards, no touchdowns, three interceptions), let's put those in the category of "needs improvement." He was 3-for-8 for 46 yards after halftime Saturday.
But Petras didn't commit a turnover for the second time in three starts and walked out of Kinnick with his first career win as Iowa's starter.
“Feels great to get the win, especially the way it came today," Petras said. "Full team effort, special teams, defense, offense. We all played well. It feels great.”
Tory Taylor’s story was fun to tell this week, but his story in America is just beginning.
The 23-year-old freshman from Australia’s right leg continues to amaze and was indirectly responsible for an Iowa touchdown for the second straight week.
On Saturday, with Iowa’s offense stalling after a second straight three-and-out in the second quarter, Taylor launched a booming, 61-yard punt that soared past Michigan State punt returner Jayden Reed and checked up at the 10-yard line. That field-position flip — from the Iowa 29 — forced a hurried, line-drive Michigan State punt, which Charlie Jones returned 54 yards for a touchdown and 28-0 lead.
Last week, it was Taylor’s well-angled 50-yard punt that glanced off a Northwestern returner’s hands and turned into a fumble recovery and 7-yard Iowa touchdown drive.
The last time Michigan State saw Iowa, in 2017, the Hawkeyes’ punting game was a mess and that continued through the 2018 season. While you don’t want to see Taylor on the field too often, his power and hang time combined with the accuracy of a PGA golfer is astounding. Taylor averaged 45.9 yards on seven punts Saturday, despite getting charged with a few coffin-corner punts in the second half that went for 29 and 38 yards that pinned Michigan State deep in its own territory. Those were beauties, too, in windy conditions.
"Weather conditions like this week and last week, that makes you that much more impressed," said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, a longtime advocate of good punting. "And I think he's gained all of our confidence, certainly his teammates and all of the coaching staff."
Even in a blowout win, the punter’s impact cannot be ignored. One team’s punts were returnable Saturday. Iowa’s were not.
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.