Leistikow's 5 thoughts: Iowa football's timely offense, dominant Jack Campbell help Hawkeyes survive CSU

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY — A popular and accurate thought among Iowa fans after the first few games of the season was that, one day, the offense would have to pick up the defense and special teams to win a game.

While it would be a stretch to say the offense took over Saturday against Colorado State, it did enough to help rally the Hawkeyes from a surprising halftime deficit.

Spencer Petras threw a 27-yard touchdown pass to Sam LaPorta to break a third-quarter tie and threw for a season-high 224 yards as sixth-ranked Iowa withstood a terrific effort from the Mountain West Conference’s Rams to win, 24-14, before 65,456 fans at Kinnick Stadium.

"There were some up-and-down moments ... but especially in the third quarter," Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said, "we saw some growth and good things."

Jack Campbell's third-quarter fumble recovery turned the game around for sixth-ranked Iowa.

This was not the cruise-control win that oddsmakers had projected for the 23-point favorite Hawkeyes, who improved to 4-0. They were punched in the mouth by a physical team that a week ago held well-regarded Toledo to 6 points. If you wondered which Colorado State team would show up, it was that one — not the one that lost to FCS South Dakota State in the opener.

And if you’re going to come to a brawl, you want to be on the side of Jack Campbell.

The terrific Iowa middle linebacker was seemingly everywhere Saturday to help turn back Colorado State (1-3). He recorded 18 tackles, the most by a Hawkeye since Anthony Hitchens had 19 against Iowa State in 2012. And when Iowa needed a big play, there Campbell was again, just as he was in Ames (with a fumble-recovery touchdown) and last week (with a forced fumble as Kent State was about to score).

Campbell fell on a fumble forced by Yahya Black that was gift-wrapped at Colorado State’s 6-yard line with Iowa trailing, 14-7.

One play later, Tyrone Tracy Jr. trotted to the end zone on a well-designed reverse call — a "Statue of Liberty" looking play — to even the score, 14-14.

"I just try to get around the ball first and foremost, and usually good things happen," Campbell said.

Petras' go-ahead 27-yard strike to LaPorta was well-designed, too. A fake tunnel screen that burned Iowa earlier left the tight end alone in the Colorado State secondary for Petras' second touchdown pass of the day.

"We practiced that all week," Petras said. "We ran a couple screens last week and thought we could take a shot on it."

LaPorta's thought as the ball was in the air?

"Don't drop it," he joked. " ... When you're that wide open, you kind of second-guess yourself."

Petras later connected with Nico Ragaini for a clutch 34-yard completion to set up Caleb Shudak's 45-yard field goal for a 24-14 lead with 12:32 left in the game.

The defense held up from there. It limited Colorado State to 32 third-quarter yards and 58 in the fourth. And when the final horn sounded, the second half ended with Iowa having recorded its 26th straight game holding its opponent to 24 or fewer points.

"That’s a great team. They gave us our best shot," Iowa defensive end Zach VanValkenburg said. "We can’t come out of here with our heads down."

Iowa’s tight-knit linebacker crew continues to be a strength of this team.

Not to be outdone, Seth Benson had 11 tackles — giving Iowa’s inside-linebacker tandem a total of 29 Saturday. Campbell and Benson both spoke afterward about how their tight friendship off the field helps them on the field.

Benson said he and Campbell regularly participate in Bible studies together.

"That’s just something we value in our life," Benson said. "If he’s down, I’m always going to pick him up. If I’m down, he’s always going to pick me up. I always kind of know his mannerisms. … Seeing someone go about his business the way he does, it just pushes you to be greater."

Campbell and Benson were rotating at middle linebacker last year. Now with last year's weak-side linebacker Nick Niemann gone to the Los Angeles Chargers, they’re together nearly all the time in the middle of Iowa’s defense.

"Being a Christian, it’s pretty cool to have someone right next to you who you’ve talked about hard things with, someone you know you can trust," Campbell said.

For the season, Campbell’s 43 tackles lead the team. Benson’s 31 are second. And fellow linebacker Jestin Jacobs continues to deliver an impact; he is third on the team with 24.

Iowa’s worst half of the season was the anti-Iowa half.

Leading 7-0 in the second quarter, things kind of seemed fine. So on third-and-8 from Iowa’s own 9, offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz probably didn’t think he was making the worst decision in the world to hand it off to fullback Monte Pottebaum for 4 yards.

But the ensuing punt by Tory Taylor was shanked — the first I can remember from the Aussie in his two-year Iowa career — out of bounds for only 22 yards. The Hawkeyes have been accustomed to that style working out, with Taylor launching a 60-yarder and then let the defense doing its work.

But this time, Colorado State had the field tilted and converted three key third downs to even the score at 7-7. The first, a 15-yard scramble from quarterback Todd Centeio on third-and-11 from the 36, may have benefitted from a penalty that wasn’t called (Noah Shannon looked to be held at the point where Centeio’s run got going).

Then, in response, Iowa’s offense looked to be doing its usual thing — closing the second quarter with points — after Petras connected with Keagan Johnson for 49 yards. But a poor decision by Petras on a tunnel screen on first-and-10 from CSU’s 14 ended his Ferentz-era record streak of 163 pass attempts without an interception. Instead of punching in a half-ending score and starting the third quarter with the ball and the lead, the Hawkeyes were in trouble.

Defensive back Robert Floyd picked off the pass intended for Tracy and returned it 62 yards to set up another Rams touchdown.

Think back to Iowa’s win at Iowa State. It was buoyed by big punts and a big-play defense. This time, Iowa was facing a big-time punter in All-American Ryan Stonehouse and the victim of a big-play defense.

As for Iowa’s defense, it was good on first and second down in the first half but not on third down. The Rams converted nine of 13 third-down opportunities in the first 30 minutes; coming into the game, they had converted just 18 of 51 (35%) and Iowa was allowing just 12 of 43 (28%) for the season.

Again, a totally non-Iowa half.

"They have a really good tight end (in Trey McBride) and a really good football team," Benson said. "We have to tighten down on third downs and get off the field. ... They gave us some looks that we needed to adjust to after halftime."

It was a day of firsts (but not lasts) for Keagan Johnson.

The true freshman from Bellevue, Nebraska, got his first career start when he lined up as one of two wide receivers on the field Saturday. He’s been a revelation since stepping on campus in January, certainly a reward for the growth and understanding of the playbook he’s shown in a short time.

Johnson would become the Hawkeyes’ best option on offense in the first half. When he beat his man up the right sideline to haul in a 43-yard touchdown pass from Petras, it was a signal that Johnson can do special things at Iowa.

"When I came out and saw press (coverage), me and Spencer, we know. We have that connection," Johnson said. "I can win those deep balls. I was just hoping I could get off the line cleanly. And credit to Spencer, the ball couldn’t have been thrown any better.”

Yeah, that was just his first career catch. But it was a beauty. And it was tough; Johnson said he lost the ball in the sun as it was coming. He secured the ball at the 5-yard line but made sure to protect it while being tackled as he tumbled into the end zone.

"I lost the ball for about three seconds. Luckily it popped back into my vision," Johnson said.

For an encore, Johnson brought down a 49-yard deep shot from Petras toward the end of the second quarter. That didn’t lead to points. But Iowa does head to Big Ten play knowing it has a potential deep passing threat in its pocket. Johnson finished with those two catches for 92 yards, or 33.1% of Iowa's 278 yards.

The last time Iowa had a true freshman deep threat? He also wore No. 6: Ihmir Smith-Marsette in 2017.

Owners of the nation’s longest nonconference winning streak? The Iowa Hawkeyes.

Oops, Minnesota. P.J. Fleck’s Golden Gophers responded poorly from their 30-0 thumping last week at Colorado, falling in a stunner at home to 31-point underdog Bowling Green, 14-10. Bowling Green had lost 11 straight FBS games until Saturday, serving a stark reminder — especially in Minneapolis — that teams have to show up ready to play each and every Saturday.

As a result, Minnesota’s 21-game nonconference winning streak ended Saturday. And now, after beating Colorado State, the Hawkeyes have the nation’s best streak in nonconference games at 15.

Of those 15, four have come against the Big 12 (all Iowa State), three Mid-American (Northern Illinois, Miami of Ohio, Kent State), two Mountain West (Wyoming, Colorado State), two Conference USA (Middle Tennessee, North Texas), one FCS (Northern Iowa), one ACC (Boston College in the 2017 Pinstripe Bowl), one SEC (Mississippi State in the 2019 Outback) and one Pac-12 (USC in the 2019 Holiday Bowl).

The Hawkeyes’ last nonconference loss was Jan. 1, 2017, against Florida in the Outback Bowl. Their next nonconference game will likely come in a bowl game this season. In 2022, Iowa’s three non-Big Ten games are at home against South Dakota State, Iowa State and Nevada.

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.