Leistikow's 4 thoughts: Iowa football's deflating loss to Purdue shows Jeff Brohm owns Kirk Ferentz again
IOWA CITY — Purdue football coach and Iowa nemesis Jeff Brohm made a comment in a news conference earlier this week that he spent a lot of time in the offseason studying Iowa.
That should have been a tell — not that the Hawkeyes needed one — that the Boilermakers would have something unique in their approach Saturday.
The Boilermakers kept Iowa guessing which of three quarterbacks they would deploy, perhaps serving as a distraction that the real plan was ultimately the same as it's been the last three years: To get the ball to the guy (David Bell) who everybody knows is going to get the ball.
Brohm's Boilermakers once again ran circles around Kirk Ferentz's Hawkeyes in a 24-7 victory at sold-out Kinnick Stadium that sent the nation's second-ranked team crashing back to earth.
"A really disappointing and difficult day for our football team," Ferentz said after seeing his team's 12-game winning streak snapped.
Brohm is now 4-1 against Ferentz during his middling tenure at Purdue and 19-26 against everyone else.
Purdue hadn't played since an Oct. 2 home loss to Minnesota, in which is scored 13 points for the third straight game. Brohm spent his team's off week devising the three-quarterback plan that unlocked the Boilermakers' offense to the tune of 463 yards and nearly 35 minutes of possession time.
While Aidan O’Connell was throwing all but three of the passes, Brohm also inserted No. 2 quarterback Jack Plummer (who had first-half rushes of 13 and six yards) and No. 3 Austin Burton (who had separate five-yard carries in the first half). During Purdue’s first touchdown drive, all three took snaps on goal-to-go situation — Burton on first down, Plummer on second and O’Connell on third for a 6-yard TD scramble.
"I didn't know if it was going to work or not," Brohm said. "But we wanted to have some creativity and let our guys go out and play and throw some punches."
Was it a groundbreaking strategy? No, but that’s the type of thing that can make the defense do extra pre-snap thinking. If the goal was to break up the rhythm of Iowa’s defense — which relies so much on togetherness and communication — it worked. Purdue racked up 233 first-half yards and averaged a robust 7.1 yards per play while taking a 14-7 lead to the halftime locker room. Iowa entered the game allowing 4.02 yards per play, third-lowest in FBS.
"We knew that they had three good quarterbacks and what their tendencies were," said Iowa linebacker Seth Benson, who landed the day's only sack on Purdue quarterbacks. "It just changes up the call, and we’ve got to be better in our fits, in jamming receivers and getting into passing lanes."
It was more of the same in the second half, as O'Connell racked up one clutch completion after another, almost always to Bell. While Iowa had successfully sidelined five of six starting quarterbacks in its rise up the national rankings, O'Connell — one of the two least heralded QBs Iowa has faced all season — was extraordinary. O'Connell completed 30 of 40 passes for 375 yards and two touchdowns. Most importantly: He threw no interceptions against an Iowa secondary that had a national-best 16 thefts coming in.
Plummer and Burton combined for eight carries for 30 yards, enough of a wrinkle to help to keep Iowa off balance and move the chains.
Ferentz has been excellent against coaches like Iowa State's Matt Campbell (5-0), Minnesota's P.J. Fleck (4-0) and Nebraska's Scott Frost (3-0). But the 1-4 mark vs. Brohm continues to leave a mark and sidetrack some excellent Iowa teams.
It was a deflating day for the Iowa defense and the Iowa program, one week after a stirring 23-20 victory in a top-five matchup against then-No. 4 Penn State.
"That's Coach Brohm's expertise and background. He's done a nice job offensively everywhere he's been," Ferentz said. "... We couldn't get off the field today, basically.
"They drove it and then they got the points they needed to get. It's not the first time they have done that, but we just didn't have answers. A credit to them."
The question must be asked: How is Bell so unstoppable against Iowa?
Phil Parker's defense had been terrific against other top targets all season long: Indiana's Ty Fryfogle, Iowa State's Charlie Kolar, Colorado State's Trey McBride and Penn State's Jahan Dotson all had pedestrian days against the Hawkeye secondary.
But Bell is on another level against Iowa, which was one of his final two schools in the recruiting process. The Indianapolis product not only dealt a blow to the Hawkeyes in high school, he's done it for three straight years in college. Iowa will be thrilled if Bell enters the 2022 NFL Draft, as he should.
The fantastic junior receiver owned anybody that guarded him Saturday for a stat line that would be stunning if he hadn't done this before: 11 catches for a Kinnick Stadium-record 240 yards and one touchdown.
His three-year, three-game totals against Iowa: 35 receptions, 558 yards, five touchdowns.
Free safety Jack Koerner said the Hawkeyes had a plan to not let Bell get into one-on-one matchups. The plan didn't work.
"Unfortunately, he was able to get loose, even if there were some guys shading on him," Koerner said. "We were trying to learn from what’s hurt us in the past."
Safe to say Iowa missed injured national interceptions leader Riley Moss, who was wearing a protective brace on his injured left knee Saturday. Matt Hankins, the reigning Bronko Nagurski national defensive player of the week, was burned for an early 60-yard pass and was continuously a step slow or behind in coverage. Hankins hurt his right shoulder on the play. He returned, but Bell was too much.
One of the best parts of Parker's defense is that it does what it does and it usually does it very well. One of the weaknesses is that it always seems to be two steps behind Brohm, Bell and the Boilers.
"They do a good job of spreading the field and understanding where in our zone they can hurt us," Koerner said. "At the end of the day, it comes down to our execution. There wasn’t a route out there we weren’t capable of covering.”
The two most bothersome things about Iowa’s offense in the first half …
First, the inability to block Purdue defensive end George Karlaftis was glaring. The Hawkeyes tried a couple of right tackles in Nick DeJong and Jack Plumb, and neither were up to the challenging task. Karlaftis also lined up against left tackle Mason Richman, with what seemed like less success.
The 6-foot-4, 275-pound future NFL pass rusher would be a problem for anybody. But there wasn’t great execution to stop him and not really a great plan, either. It should be noted that Iowa was playing without left guard Cody Ince, out with an unspecified injury. Karlaftis had one sack and three quarterback hurries but was disruptive afternoon.
"He’s a great player," said Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras, who finished 17-for-32 for 195 yards with four interceptions. "There’s a reason he’s a projected first-round (NFL Draft) pick. I wish him the best of luck.”
Second, why did Iowa take a knee with 3 seconds left from its own 44-yard line? OK, yes, I get the fear of bad things that can happen. See above. On the previous play, Karlaftis flushed Petras into a throw-away incompletion.
Florida scored on the last play of the first half against LSU with a Hail Mary pass. If you throw it up for grabs, maybe you get a pass-interference call and untimed, long field goal attempt. Or throw a screen pass and let Tyler Goodson get as many yards as he can; you never know, a face-mask penalty could also extend the drive with an untimed play.
Ferentz clearly wanted to get to halftime at that point. One would have to imagine Purdue gained a little confidence from that decision, too, that perhaps Iowa was playing scared.
Ferentz's explanation: "What are you going to do? Get somebody hurt. We did go for it the play before that, right? Tried to get the ball down the field. ... That was not the game-turner, that's for sure. I don't think (Petras) could throw it that far. That would be tough."
Circle that Nov. 13 game against Minnesota on your calendars.
Not only is that Iowa’s next home game — with the Hawkeyes next three Saturdays being spent on an off weekend, at Wisconsin and at Northwestern — it could be the most important game in deciding the Big Ten West championship.
All the recent talk about Nebraska being the second-best team in the West quickly vanished Saturday morning, as the Cornhuskers fell at Minnesota, 30-23, in classic Scott Frost fashion — poor special-teams play, unfathomable and ill-timed mistakes and another one-score Big Ten loss.
Iowa (6-1, 3-1), Minnesota (4-2, 2-1) and Purdue (4-2, 2-1) are now tied in the loss column. Purdue's schedule gets pretty rigorous from here (including a game at Ohio State) and it does have a head-to-head loss already to Minnesota. Meantime, the Gophers’ upcoming schedule seems pretty manageable: home against Maryland, at Northwestern, home against Illinois. They could conceivably carry a 5-1 Big Ten mark into sold-out Kinnick Stadium on Nov. 13 in the battle for Floyd of Rosedale.
Meantime, a shout-out to … Northwestern, which on Saturday became the first West Division team besides Iowa to win a game against an East Division foe. Northwestern collected its first Big Ten win by beating Rutgers, 21-7.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.