Leistikow: Let's take stock of Iowa football's D-line, O-line and Spencer Petras after Hawkeyes' 3-0 start
As head coach Kirk Ferentz said afterward, “I don't know how good we are. We'll figure that out three months from now.”
That’s because Iowa’s best football teams make continued progress toward what this one hopes will be a Dec. 4 date in the Big Ten Conference championship game. This was just the quarter-point of a demanding 12-game regular-season schedule. And to be 3-0 and ranked among the top 10 teams in college football at the 25% mark is a great place to start.
The Hawkeyes may not have been at their best Saturday. But give them kudos for posting a 23-point win coming off the heels of the program's third road win against a top-10 team of the 23-year Ferentz era.
You know what happened after the previous top-10 road win? Iowa came home in 2009 following a 21-10 win at No. 5 Penn State and struggled mightily at home against an Arkansas State team that would go 4-8 that season. Iowa survived that day, 24-21. Responding after an emotional high is tough, and Iowa did that with a convincing win Saturday.
Coming into this season, there was a hope that the Hawkeyes could be a special team. But there were three big question-mark areas.
The defensive line might’ve been No. 1, after losing three-fourths of the starting lineup to NFL 53-man rosters.
Quarterback play was probably No. 2, with curiosity of how much Spencer Petras could elevate his game.
And the offensive line was up there at No. 3, considering two new tackles needed to be groomed in a hurry.
Let’s check in on all three areas.
Defensive line: Exceeding expectations.
Iowa recorded seven sacks Saturday, its highest total in a game since a Norm Parker-infused 2000 upset of Northwestern that helped Ferentz’s program turn a corner at the end of his second season.
Of those seven, 6½ were recorded by defensive linemen. The parade to Dustin Crum began with a first-quarter safety, as a botched snap saw the talented Kent State quarterback helpless to avoid a 15-yard loss and a 2-0 lead for Iowa. Second-year freshman Lukas Van Ness and sixth-year senior Zach VanValkenburg were the first of many to arrive.
“A game-changing play,” said middle linebacker Jack Campbell, who was also on the scene. “It took a little air out of them, especially at the start of the game to get Kinnick rocking.”
Van Ness and Joe Evans, both second-stringers, had two sacks apiece. Starting ends VanValkenburg (1½ sacks) and John Waggoner (one) also got into the act, with Campbell getting the other half.
“We always talk about getting as many hats to the ball as possible,” Van Ness. “That’s why we call it 'the swarm.'”
What has maybe been most impressive about this defensive line is how many times you’ve seen opposing offensive lineman have no choice but to hold them or even tackle them. Some of those flags were actually thrown Saturday.
The stats so far (2.5 opponent yards per carry) reflect well on the young defensive line. What I like the most about them is their energy. Defensive line coach Kelvin Bell rotates five ends and four tackles, and they all play hard.
“That defensive line, there’s no let-up in them,” Campbell said. “That’s just something that makes me proud of them. … Now we can just keep improving. I think you guys got just a little snippet of it today.”
Quarterback: Incomplete, but there are positives.
There was a smattering of boos after Iowa’s fifth drive ended with Petras throwing a 5-yard pass to Nico Ragaini on third-and-10. At that point, the junior quarterback was a pedestrian 8-for-14 for 58 yards, and the Hawkeyes were punting with a precarious 9-7 lead.
But Petras and the offense were much better from that point forward. After a big sack by Van Ness, the offense delivered a 20-play drive (the longest of the Ferentz era) that stretched 95 yards and covered 8 minutes, 38 seconds and gave Iowa a 16-7 halftime lead. Petras went 9-for-11 on that possession and was 4-for-4 on third downs, including a clutch 5-yard touchdown pass to tight end Sam LaPorta (seven catches, 65 yards).
On that play, Petras noticed a safety drop to cover Tyrone Tracy Jr., which gave him just enough of a window to slip the ball to his favorite target.
“Like every game, there were some wrinkles they threw at us. It takes us some time to sort through them and figure out which plays are going to be best for us,” Petras said. “On that drive especially, we got into some really good runs that helped us.”
Petras was 17-for-22 for 151 yards after that 8-for-14 start. Those are acceptable numbers. Ferentz said afterward that some quarterbacks make him feel good; others "scare the heck out of me." He is comfortable with Petras so far but like the rest of us, wants to see more.
The progress has been incremental with Petras. He deserves credit for winning nine straight games as a starting quarterback; that counts for a lot in Ferentz’s book. One of the reasons for that is he’s only thrown two interceptions (vs. 10 touchdowns) in that win streak, including none in his last 154 attempts.
With a defense like Iowa’s, protecting the football is the most important thing. Petras understands that well. Kent State led the country with eight interceptions coming into Saturday but wasn't close to getting one Saturday.
Still, there are moments of frustration — like when he missed Jones on a wide-open toss up the right sideline that should've been a 15- to 20-yard gain.
“I'm sure he would tell you the same thing, that you've got to make that throw,” Ferentz said. “That's the next step. But that'll come.
“I think maybe he's pressing a little bit too hard at times.”
Even Ferentz agrees. There’s more work to do at quarterback. But Petras led the offense to four touchdowns Saturday. I thought it was a confidence-building move for offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz to stay aggressive, up 23-7 midway through the fourth quarter. A 48-yard connection to Ragaini helped set up a good finishing feeling for an offense that could point to gaining 418 yards on 75 plays.
“We ran the ball really well, we threw the ball well. I made good decisions all day,” Petras said. “… I know I had a couple bad throws, but that’s going to happen.”
Offensive line: Satisfactory; not there yet.
But there were positive steps Saturday, the most significant being the sight of No. 64 on the field. Kyler Schott got his first snaps (at left guard) of 2021 after he suffered a broken foot, and that’s going to help long-term.
Iowa rotated rotated four guards and three tackles around dominant center Tyler Linderbaum, who said he sometimes doesn’t even know who is lined up next to him. The front five changes almost every series. The juggling worked pretty well Saturday, with no sacks allowed.
“It all starts with the guy in the middle, Lindy,” said Tyler Goodson, who was the first Hawkeye with 150-plus rushing yards and three touchdowns since Akrum Wadley in 2017. “He does a great job being a great leader for those (younger) guys.”
Iowa’s per-carry average before this game was a paltry 3.0. It’s up to 3.8 after Saturday’s 38-carry, 206-yard day. That’s not bad, but take it from Linderbaum: They’re still young, and there’s a lot to fix.
“Tyler (Goodson) did a great job,” Linderbaum said. “But the biggest thing is there’s still a lot of yards we left out there."
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.