Leistikow: Hawkeyes still have prime seat at college football table, but urgency setting in

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY — There are at least 100 teams in college football that would have loved to trade places or outcomes with Iowa on Saturday.

Here are three that hit close to home:

  • Wisconsin, which may have more issues than anyone realized — especially at quarterback — after a lopsided loss to Notre Dame.
  • Minnesota, which stumbled at home to Bowling Green, one of the worst teams in college football over the past 24 months.
  • Iowa State, which had such high hopes for its season but suffered heartache at Baylor.

Oh, and here’s one more: A little outfit called Clemson, which has two losses before the calendar flips to October.

Those facts shouldn’t portray sixth-ranked Iowa’s 24-14 home win against Colorado State as a beautiful piece of art. There are plenty of reasons to think the Hawkeyes have some shortcomings that will ultimately undo them.

The run game is becoming a problem. The dependency on a no-turnover performance is razor thin. The first nine days of October — at 4-0 Maryland, home against 4-0 Penn State — look more daunting than originally anticipated.

But look around college football. Except for No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Georgia, best wishes finding teams without significant warts.

The Iowa Hawkeyes just won their 10th consecutive game.

That’s happened two previous times in the modern era — across the 2008-09 seasons (13 in a row) and, of course, in 2015 with the 12-0 regular season. Just twice. Nine of those Hawkeye wins have come by double digits, including Saturday’s.

Iowa tight end Sam LaPorta, right, celebrates with Jackson Ritter after the go-ahead score in the third quarter that helped the Hawkeyes defeat Colorado State, 24-21.

These are uncommon times, and this Iowa team is riding a winning wave. It is finding ways to keep a zero in the loss column, even when it doesn’t have its best stuff.

Appreciate this. Enjoy this.

"Every win’s a good win," linebacker Seth Benson said. "No matter how it happens."

How did this one happen?

Well, unfortunately, we can’t cue up a movie-script halftime speech from Kirk Ferentz. The 23rd-year coach genuinely said he hasn’t laid into his team at the break since the 2000 season, and he didn’t on Saturday either with his team trailing, 14-7, after a disastrous finish to the first half.

Now, defensive end Zach VanValkenburg did divulge that on the Phil Parker mad scale, the defensive coordinator was at a 6½ Saturday. ("But that’s not saying he wasn’t angry," VanValkenburg clarified.)

But Ferentz’s message was simple.

"There's no magic here. We've just got to go out and play better," he told them. "We've got to quit helping (Colorado State)."

Ferentz reminded them it’s a long game. You still have 30 more minutes.

But also: You only have 30 minutes.

"We just felt like we had to go out and do something about it," said tight end Sam LaPorta, whose 27-yard touchdown catch capped a 14-point Iowa flurry in the third quarter to make it 21-14. "We felt like we should have been winning the game, and it kind of pissed us off a little bit."

There should be a lot of encouragement that Iowa followed up its worst half of the season by shutting out Colorado State, 17-0, in the second half.

The offense didn’t commit a turnover after halftime.

The defense created one and held the Rams to 90 second-half yards on 37 plays.

On special teams, Tory Taylor (downed punt at the 1-yard line), Charlie Jones (38-yard punt return to set up Iowa’s go-ahead touchdown) and Caleb Shudak (clutch 45-yard field goal) came through.

A lesser team would've panicked and pressed.

Iowa pressed on.

"A little adversity, and we fought through it," said quarterback Spencer Petras, who made one really bad throw but had a good day overall — 15-for-23 for a season-high 224 yards and two touchdowns. "That’s what good teams do. When something doesn’t go right, you just right the ship and keep chopping. I thought we did that today."

After Alabama and Georgia, there is a wide-open race right now among a dozen or so teams that have legitimate College Football Playoff thoughts. Iowa is among the unbeaten likes of Oregon, Notre Dame, Penn State, Michigan, Oklahoma, Wake Forest and Arkansas that have done some nice things to date but have a lot more to prove.

And, for better or for worse, we’ll find out more about Iowa soon. The Hawkeyes’ short-week road trip to Maryland — a Friday-night battle in College Park in front of a "blackout" Terrapins crowd — will be revealing. And even if Iowa escapes that hornet's nest, the Oct. 9 spotlight showdown against Penn State follows. Then it’s an Oct. 16 Homecoming game with always-tricky Purdue (3-1), followed by the team’s lone off week.

"And then we'll assess things after that," Ferentz said.

Middle linebacker Jack Campbell was the last of six Hawkeye players to be interviewed after Saturday’s game. He marched to the dais with a bandage near his eye, looking like a prize fighter that had just gone 12 rounds. And he kind of did, considering he made 18 tackles of battering Rams Saturday.

Campbell summed up Saturday’s vibe, one that the Iowa fan base and locker room should take to heart.

"We got the win today. I’m excited about that. And I celebrated like heck with my teammates," Campbell said. "But knowing we’ve got a short week ahead of us, we’ve got to get back on it with just a little more urgency.

"We’ve got to understand time is of the essence right now."

In other words: Grateful to be 4-0; not naïve to think that can’t be 4-1 by Friday with another performance like this.

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.