Leistikow: Hawkeyes don't look like a 9-2 team, but they are one. That's worth appreciating
IOWA CITY — How has this Iowa football team, with statistically one of the most challenged offenses in the country, put together a 9-2 record and still have a shot at reaching the Big Ten Championship Game?
By doing the kind of stuff that Charlie Jones and 10 of his kickoff-return-team buddies did Saturday afternoon during the Hawkeyes’ 33-23 win against Illinois at Kinnick Stadium.
Even though the Illini had allowed only four kickoffs to be returned in 10 games for a total of 66 yards (second-fewest in the country), Iowa special-teams coach LeVar Woods had his kickoff team prepared for the slim chance that his guys would get a chance.
Turns out, Woods had discovered a vulnerability on film in studying last year’s Iowa game at Illinois. He outlined that if Jones could catch the ball in the right side of the end zone, a game-changing play could be made.
That’s exactly what happened, and just when Iowa needed it — buried in a quick 10-0, first-quarter hole after a disastrous start.
Jones began his journey to the opposite end zone through the middle of the field, working behind an excellent block from running back Ivory Kelly-Martin on his left. Jones’ pure speed got to the outside, where defensive back Henry Marchese was making an energetic block of a defender. (Jones said he’d be treating Marchese to some Chipotle after the special-teams gem.)
Three fifth-year seniors, paying attention to their coaching and executing perfectly.
All three Illinois natives, too, on senior day at Kinnick — Kelly-Martin from Plainfield, Marchese from Vernon Hills and Jones from Deerfield.
And Jones, the former walk-on, used his turn-the-corner speed to deliver the game-changing, 100-yard return. Feisty Iowa was back in it.
“Just like we drew it up. Just like we saw on film,” Jones said. “It was a really good call by coach Woods.
“The guys on that unit are special and take pride in what they do.”
Add those seven points to the 12 via field goals by Caleb Shudak, and special teams directly accounted for 19 of Iowa’s 33 points Saturday.
That was a snapshot example of how Iowa's path to 9-2.
“We find a way to win. That’s still what the game is about,” Kirk Ferentz said after his 177th win in 23 seasons as Iowa’s head coach. “You can talk about style points. And that’s important at some point, maybe. But it’s about trying to find a way to be successful in whatever the given situations are.”
Let’s be honest. Eleven games into this season, Iowa isn’t the second-best team in the country as it was ranked after the 6-0 start that saw euphoric wins at Iowa State and Penn State. Those wins have lost some national shine, of course, and Iowa’s offensive woes seem to be glaring in some area every week. Saturday’s maddening issue was at least four dropped passes in Alex Padilla’s second career start.
Iowa was thoroughly outplayed in its midseason losses to Purdue and Wisconsin. No question.
But in the other nine games? Iowa’s found a way.
A rivalry game at then-top-10 Iowa State? The Hawkeyes forced four turnovers, scored on defense and won despite gaining less than 200 yards of offense.
The 17-3 deficit against then-No. 4 Penn State? They knocked out the opposing quarterback and Spencer Petras-to-Nico Ragaini sealed a historic top-five win at Kinnick.
Last week when Minnesota controlled more than 40 minutes of clock and both lines of scrimmage? No problem; just have freshman receiver Keagan Johnson improbably squirt out of two tacklers to turn a 5-yard loss into the winning points.
And on Saturday?
The same Illinois team that rushed for 357 yards at Penn State a month ago rushed for 64 Saturday against a Hawkeye defense that was missing two senior staples in Matt Hankins and Jack Koerner with a combined 66 career starts.
The Hawkeyes found a way.
“I love this team, the way we battle,” said Dane Belton, who has a team-best five of Iowa's 21 interceptions on defense. “We put our head down and get to work, no matter what anybody says about this or that. The job’s not done. We’ve got a short week ahead of us."
And now a chance to get to 10-2, in Friday's game at 3-8 Nebraska. Only three Ferentz-era teams have posted a 10-win regular season, and they are the three you’d probably guess: 2002, 2009 and 2015.
All three of those teams are remembered for as special, for good reason.
If the Hawkeyes win in Lincoln, they can join a select list … then kick their feet up and hope for a Wisconsin loss at Minnesota the next day. With this team, for whatever reason, the improbable has become possible.
If you're inclined to tear down this Iowa team for its faults, you might be missing the big picture.
Here is a list of teams in the preseason coaches’ poll that most would objectively say have had disappointing or underachieving seasons: No. 2 Clemson; No. 8 Iowa State; No. 9 North Carolina; No. 11 Florida; No. 13 LSU; No. 14 USC; No. 16 Miami; No. 17 Indiana; No. 19 Texas; No. 20 Penn State and No. 21 Washington.
That's quite a list. And many of those programs are in such tumult that they’ll be looking for new coaches this offseason and on the hook for hefty contract buyouts.
Is this Iowa team frustrating at times? Of course.
Still fighting? Absolutely.
That’s this team, in a nutshell.
“This season’s been phenomenal for us. Wisconsin and Purdue, they outplayed us. We didn’t play very well,” running back Tyler Goodson said. “But the courage of this team, the character of this team (shows) we’re not worried about those two losses. We can overcome any adversity that comes our way. That’s what I love about this team.”
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.