Leistikow's 4 thoughts: Iowa football takes a historic postseason beating in its big-stage moment

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

INDIANAPOLIS — Think about the biggest postseason games in the Kirk Ferentz era.

The 2015 Big Ten Conference championship game probably ranks No. 1 as most important. That year’s valiant effort by the Iowa football team was certainly memorable, but the ultimate result was a three-point loss to Michigan State with a win-and-in shot at the College Football Playoff.

The other three postseason games in the top four are probably the 2003 Orange Bowl (a No. 3 vs. No. 4 matchup in Miami), the 2016 Rose Bowl (No. 5 vs. No. 6) and Saturday night’s Big Ten championship game (with a chance for the Hawkeyes to win their first outright league title in 36 years).

And in all three of those, Iowa laid a big-time egg on the national stage.

The latest came Saturday as the Hawkeyes were trounced, 42-3, by second-ranked Michigan in front a Big Ten title-game-record 67,183 fans at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Wolverines started fast and finished strong, with a 21-point fourth quarter.

This one felt like a combination of the 2003 Orange Bowl and the 2016 Rose Bowl. In the 2003 Orange (a 38-17 loss to USC), Iowa hung around early but was ultimately overwhelmed. But this also resembled the 2016 Rose, as the Wolverines delivered big-strike touchdowns in the first quarter (more on that later) like Christian McCaffrey did in that 45-16 Stanford rout.

“Disheartening. Definitely sad. Angry. All of the above,” safety Kaevon Merriweather said. “A loss like that, especially on that stage, this big of a game, the emotions are really strong.”

Hassan Haskins set a Michigan record with his 20th touchdown run of the season as the Wolverines demolished Iowa on Saturday night.

Michigan gained 461 yards on its way to the College Football Playoff, while Iowa suffered its most lopsided postseason loss ever (topping the 37-3 loss to California in the 1993 Alamo Bowl). The Wolverines could do no wrong in this one, as evidenced by a sensational one-handed catch by Erick All with 5 minutes, 24 seconds remaining to make it 35-3.

The Iowa offense stalled too often (more on that later, too), whether Spencer Petras or Alex Padilla was in the game. Kirk Ferentz tapped Padilla midway through the third quarter, but it didn’t matter who was at quarterback. Michigan’s defensive line was way too imposing for Iowa's offensive line to handle.

"We knew we would have to play our best and make some things go our way," Ferentz said. "Obviously, that didn't materialize. It's certainly disappointing. It certainly hurts."

The defense had its worst performance in a long time. Iowa hadn't allowed 40-plus points in regulation since a 41-14 loss at Saquon Barkley-led Penn State in 2016.

And on special teams? Iowa missed a field goal and even had a punt blocked in the fourth quarter.

“Just one thing leads to another sometimes. I’ve been in games like that, unfortunately. They’re not much fun," Ferentz said after suffering the second-most lopsided loss (39 points) in his 23 years as a head coach. Only a 49-3 loss to Michigan State in 1999 was worse. "I’m not sure the score’s representative of the two teams, but that’s just the way it went tonight.”

It was a Hawkeye night to flush and forget ... but this one will be hard to forget.

The Citrus Bowl is likely next for 10-3 Iowa.

When this was a game, Iowa’s offensive woes were highlighted by red-zone failures.

The Hawkeyes’ first possession of the game was actually pretty smooth. Petras (9-for-22, 137 yards) connected with Sam LaPorta for gains of 15 and 21 yards. A pass-interference flag drawn by Keagan Johnson also moved the chains. Iowa had a chance to make an early statement in Indy, and offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz tried to do just that on first-and-goal from the Michigan 17.

After receiving a toss sweep, freshman running back Gavin Williams pulled up … and lobbed a pass to a wide-open Hawkeye. Unfortunately, the pass was a little too far and the open Hawkeye was a fullback in Monte Pottebaum who stumbled on his way to an awkward diving attempt.

"We've had it in the playbook and executed it pretty well. It looked like they got discombobulated with it," Ferentz said. "... It was there, just couldn't execute it. It's a shot play. Theirs went 70 yards for a touchdown. Ours went incomplete."

Had that play connected it would’ve been a 7-0 Hawkeye lead, right in front of the core group of Iowa fans that probably made up 40-50% of Lucas Oil Stadium. Instead, it was representative of a terrible night in the red zone. A third-and-5 running play to Tyler Goodson lost three yards. Ferentz might’ve been trying to get to a fourth-and-short there. Instead, it was fourth-and-8, and a rare Caleb Shudak missed field goal was a major thud for the Hawkeyes to start the night.

Iowa’s three red-zone trips netted seven yards on 10 snaps and just three points. Yuck.

After Padilla (10-for-15, 38 yards, one interception) entered the game in the third quarter after Petras suffered a core injury, the Hawkeyes moved nicely for more than six minutes. But a fourth-and-3 try from the Michigan 8 with heavy personnel failed badly. Padilla was trying to fake an out pass to Arland Bruce IV and throw to the tight end on the backside. But that was covered, and Padilla's bailout pass to Goodson lost 7 yards.

Some of Brian Ferentz’s past offenses have been outstanding in the red zone. The 2018 team with two first-round NFL Draft picks at tight end racked up seven points regularly in the red zone. But like in 2019 (when Keith Duncan kicked a Big Ten-record 29 field goals), this year has been a struggle to put the football in the end zone often enough in big games.

“A lot of your play calls, you can put those out the window (in the red zone)," said LaPorta, who had six catches for 62 yards. "It’s a much different playbook than the rest of the field. I don’t know. Just seemed like the last couple weeks we couldn’t get much going in the red zone, which hurts."

Michigan offensive coordinator Josh Gattis is a Broyles Award finalist for a reason.

Gattis’ creative run game is one of the biggest reasons Michigan won the Big Ten East. Saturday, he knew he needed to hit the Hawkeyes early. And he did.

The Wolverines popped Blake Corum for 67 yards on their second drive of the game, after Shudak’s 33-yard field goal misfired. Linebacker Jack Campbell guessed wrong and vacated the hole up the middle where Corum ran, and the game-breaker curled to his right and sped the distance. Before that, the longest rushing play Phil Parker’s defense had yielded this season on 429 attempts was 28 yards by Wisconsin’s Braelon Allen on Oct. 30.

Michigan’s first play call on its next possession went for a 75-yard touchdown. The halfback pass looked awfully similar to how Iowa State hit Iowa for a long TD in 2019 against a backup cornerback (D.J. Johnson then). This time, a toss back to Donovan Edwards fooled backup cornerback Jermari Harris (with Matt Hankins out for the year), and Edwards’ heave to Roman Wilson went for an easy TD and 14-0 Michigan lead.

“We had a great week of practice," linebacker Seth Benson said. "The score didn’t reflect that.”

Parker, a Broyles Award semifinalist (for nation’s top assistant coach), is known for making in-game and even in-series adjustments. Those adjustments came, as Michigan would gain just 53 second-quarter yards and throw two first-half interceptions. But not until after the early haymakers.

In the first half, Iowa was plus-2 in turnovers, held running back Hassan Haskins to 13 rushing yards and had 17-plus minutes of possession time ... yet trailed, 14-3, 

That’s a school record for Iowa’s 'Doughboy$'

Harris did the honors, with a goal-line pick on a Hail Mary attempt to end the first half. That marked Iowa’s 24th interception of the season, the most in program history.

That theft topped the 23 hauled in by the 1986 and 2008 Hawkeye defenses. Earlier in the game, Campbell’s interception of Cade McNamara off a deflection matched the school record.

Iowa’s 24 interceptions are the most by any FBS team since the 2016 season, when San Diego State had 26.

No Power Five team has had this many interceptions in a season since 2014 (TCU and Louisville). Interceptions have definitely been hallmark for the “Doughboys$,” Iowa’s defensive backs who created that name because they like to cash in on opponent mistakes.

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.