Leistikow: Why does Iowa football have such a tough time against Purdue? Let's dive in.

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY — If Iowa football fans know the recent history, you’d better believe the Hawkeye coaches and players do, too.

When it comes to playing Purdue?

“They’ve had our number,” free safety Jack Koerner said.

“It’s not good,” head coach Kirk Ferentz added.

“I just think they play really well, especially against us,” quarterback Spencer Petras said. “I don’t know why.”

Jeff Brohm has a 22-27 record in 4½ seasons as Purdue’s head coach. He is 1-4 vs. Minnesota and 1-3 vs. Northwestern, yet he’s 3-1 against Iowa. Considering the Hawkeye program has a 39-14 record during Brohm’s tenure in West Lafayette, the head-to-head results stand out.

  • In 2017: Purdue 24, Iowa 15.
  • In 2018: Purdue 38, Iowa 36.
  • In 2019: Iowa 26, Purdue 20.
  • In 2020: Purdue 24, Iowa 20.

Interestingly, Purdue has had used four starting quarterbacks in four years vs. Iowa — Elijah Sindelar, David Blough, Jack Plummer and Aidan O'Connell. So, the personnel changes. But the overall themes are consistent.

Here’s a look at four reasons why Iowa has struggled in these matchups. Addressing these issues is key to the second-ranked Hawkeyes winning Saturday’s Homecoming matchup against the Boilermakers (2:30 p.m. CT, ABC).

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David Bell, middle, has a remarkable stat line in two meetings vs. Iowa: 26 catches for 318 yards and four touchdowns.

1. Purdue brings an unconventional approach.

Brohm has many gadget plays in his pocket. He's prone to call a deep shot on third-and-1.

“They keep you on your toes,” Iowa defensive end Zach VanValkenburg said. “They’re not going to be predictable.”

Perhaps there is no greater example of Brohm throwing traditional football thinking out the window than the 2017 game, when — after facing a 9-7 halftime deficit — the plan became throwing to the same receiver over and over again. On four straight plays, Sindelar targeted Anthony Mahoungou, who was guarded by Manny Rugamba each time. The results: 11 yards, defensive pass interference, 14 yards and 42-yard touchdown.

Rugamba was benched in favor of Michael Ojemudia, but Brohm's plan didn't stop. Sindelar threw immediately to Mahoungou for 35 yards. Two plays later, Sindelar-to-Mahoungou produced a 14-yard touchdown and a 21-9 lead to start the third quarter. Ojemudia was benched, too. 

“When you can get a big play or two on them, it helps,” Brohm said in 2019. “They’re great at not giving up big plays. … So, if you can find a way to get a lead — which we did by being aggressive — it puts them in a harder position.”

The Boilermakers are willing to air it out against Iowa; they’ve thrown 100 passes in the last two meetings alone and have excellent accuracy (63.3%) over these four years. That was Penn State’s plan last week, too, until Sean Clifford got hurt. Needless to say, Iowa is braced for Air Brohm on Saturday.

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2. There’s always that one receiver.

Mahoungou had a career day (seven catches, 135 yards) in 2017. In 2018, Terry Wright burned Iowa for six catches, 146 yards and three touchdowns — including an 82-yarder on Purdue's first play of the third quarter.

The last two years, it’s been the David Bell show. He had 13 catches for 197 yards and a score in the tense  2019 game (Iowa’s only win against Brohm) and 13 for 121 and three scores last fall. That’s staggering production against a Hawkeye defense that is typically so stingy against the pass.

Ferentz called Bell "one of the best players that I've seen in quite some time." Bell has returned from concussion protocol and is dominating again. The junior has an astonishing 13 100-yard receiving games in his last 19 outings.

Purdue's David Bell (3) is back from concussion protocol and is dominating again.

Iowa is known as a team that takes a consistent approach. Given the history with Bell and Brohm — who said Tuesday he spent a lot of time in the offseason studying Iowa — it has no choice but to change things up.

“We have a little bit different game plan this week (vs.) last year,” Koerner said. “Understanding that they want to throw the ball deep, that’s how they move the ball.

“We’re going to do what we’ve been doing against the other good opponents. … Staying on top of receivers. Being aggressive at the point of attack. Getting the ball out. We’re a way better team right now than we were last year when we played them.”

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3. The Boilermakers are good at forcing Iowa to pass.

While Purdue typically isn’t known for its defense, it has done a good job forcing Iowa to air it out in the four Brohm-Ferentz meetings. The Boilers did a good job from 2017 to 2019 in bottling up Iowa’s running game to just 2.8 yards per carry.

Last year, the Hawkeyes rushed for 195 and threw for 265 — but committed two costly fumbles in the run game in Purdue territory.

“I can just tell you if I had gone through my progressions a little better and if we hadn’t turned the ball over, we would’ve won the game,” Petras said. “We made too many mistakes on offense.”

Making Iowa play a game it doesn’t want to play — like the 38-36 shootout in 2018 — has been a Purdue strength. What is a little scary for the Hawkeyes is Purdue’s defense has been better than usual this year. The Boilers are No. 3 in the conference in total defense (299.6 yards per game) and scoring defense (15.4 points per game).

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4. Purdue keeps the turnover margin even.

Since the start of the 2017 season, Iowa is a remarkable plus-49 in turnover margin. In the same span, Purdue is minus-14 in turnovers. Yet in the four Ferentz vs. Brohm meetings against Purdue, it's dead even.

Purdue uncharacteristically has done a good job of playing clean — five interceptions on 169 pass attempts and just one lost fumble in four years vs. Iowa. That puts stress on the Hawkeyes, who count on getting short fields to score points. They rank No. 1 in the country this season in starting field position.

So … Purdue certainly has Iowa’s attention. That is probably a good thing to help the Hawkeyes recalibrate after last week’s emotional win in a top-five matchup that drew 6.9 million viewers on Fox.

If Iowa isn’t ready for this matchup given the history between the schools, it will deserve to be knocked from its No. 2 pedestal. The Hawkeyes are favored by 11½ points, but they are preparing for a tense game as usual.

"Every game's been a different story," said Ferentz, who said he still had scar tissue from the 2017 game in Iowa City. "But the common denominator is they play hard and they play well.

"You really have to defend everything. And that's keeps pressure on you defensively. We've got a lot of respect for them and for obvious reasons, I'm well aware of that, believe me."

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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.