Leistikow: Unpacking Iowa football's motivation to get revenge on Purdue

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

INDIANAPOLIS — The Iowa football team will play three trophy games this November against traditional rivals Wisconsin, Minnesota and Nebraska. There’s plenty of hate that goes all directions in those games.

Yet there might not be a matchup with more juice for Iowa players and their fan base than the lone non-trophy game in that furious finishing month: at Purdue on Nov. 5.

The Boilermakers have frustrated Iowa during the Jeff Brohm era, going 4-1 against Kirk Ferentz — including last year’s 24-7 win over the then-No. 2 team in the country on Homecoming at Kinnick Stadium. What a gut punch that was for the Hawkeyes.

And to add to the pain, Purdue snapped up not one but two Iowa wide receivers in the transfer portal. First, Tyrone Tracy Jr. Then, in a surprise development in late May, Charlie Jones.

“Maybe behind closed doors there’s a little bit of extra juice,” Iowa safety Kaevon Merriweather said this week at Big Ten Media Days at Lucas Oil Stadium. “But I’m not going to say that.”

Didn’t you just say that?

“No man, I love T. I love Charlie,” he replied. “It’ll be fun seeing them on the field, knocking them around a little bit.”

Another Hawkeye who was here this week, tight end Sam LaPorta, acknowledged that, yeah, “some of the offseason stuff will definitely play into the motivation that we have for this year.”

More:Leistikow: Thoughts on Charlie Jones' departure and how Iowa football will replace him

In interviews this week, Iowa's Kirk Ferentz (left) and Purdue's Jeff Brohm expressed mutual appreciation for one another.

The contentious Charlie Jones transfer

Some players on the Iowa team were upset about Jones’ departure. Fans certainly didn’t like how it looked. Jones popped into the portal May 25 and turned up at Purdue nine days later.

After learning more about how Jones and Purdue quarterback Aidan O’Connell grew up playing football together in suburban Chicago, the connection made more sense. The O'Connell and Jones families were close as the boys grew up. Both families have six children. Jones and O'Connell both decided to return for their sixth-year senior seasons with an eye on the NFL. Purdue needed receivers; Iowa doesn’t throw the ball a ton.

O’Connell was the quarterback and Jones the receiver for their youth football teams in middle school. They've been friends ever since.

“Back then, you didn’t have reads. You’d just drop back and throw the out to Charlie or throw the go to Charlie,” O’Connell said. “That’s basically what we did. I threw to Charlie a lot. Yeah, there’s a lot of good memories, a lot of good game film we’ll have to pull up to watch from our youth years.”

More:Nine things Iowa football's Big Ten opponents said at Media Days

Brohm is delighted in the additions of both Jones, the reigning Big Ten return specialist of the year, and Tracy. The feeling is that Jones will be a starter in Purdue, while Tracy will be a hybrid receiver/running back. Brohm expects that Jones can be an inside or outside receiver in addition to his best role as a punt returner.

“He's just very smart. He understands,” Brohm said. “He's picked up things well.”

The groans from Iowa fans are out there.

Uh-oh, another Purdue receiver that’s going to torment us?

Just when David Bell moved on to the NFL, it would be a dagger if Jones or Tracy had a big (and victorious) game against the Hawkeyes on Nov. 5.

Cue Merriweather one more time.

“It'll be a really interesting game,” he said with a chuckle, “but hopefully I get to knock some of their heads off a little bit.”

The underlying reason for Iowa's motivation

Brohm is 4-1 against Iowa and all four wins have been knife-twisting moments.

In 2017: A 24-15 win in Kinnick Stadium in which two quick-strike third-quarter touchdowns deflated a fan base that two weeks earlier saw the Hawkeyes rout Ohio State, 55-24.

In 2018: A 38-36 home win on a last-seconds field goal after controversial penalties were whistled against Iowa late in the fourth quarter.

In 2020: A 24-20 season-opening win after the Hawkeyes led, 14-7, in Spencer Petras’ first career start. Brohm was out with COVID-19 in that game, but Bell burned Iowa for 13 catches and three touchdowns.

In 2021: The aforementioned 24-7 rout at Kinnick saw the Boilers catch a flat Iowa team on Homecoming, seven days after a mountaintop win against Penn State.

“It seems like they always catch us on an off day for some reason,” LaPorta said. “… The Purdue game, we had a huge target on our back being No. 2 in the country, 6-0. My high school football coach always loved the Bon Jovi quote. 'It's hard to get to the top; it's harder to stay there.' So I don't know what it was. But they always seem to have our number.”

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Ferentz knows the dubious count since 2017 against Purdue, which runs counter to his own recent mastery against programs like Iowa State, Illinois, Minnesota and Nebraska.

“We didn’t match up very well at two key positions last year, one on defense (George Karlaftis vs. Iowa’s tackles) and one on offense (Bell vs. Iowa’s injury-depleted secondary),” Ferentz said. “I think those two matchups really made it tough for us.”

Merriweather noted that “every single year, I see new things they put into the offense the week of the game that I didn’t see prior to watching.”

That’s a testament to Brohm’s innovation, such as when he unveiled a three-quarterback wrinkle in Iowa City last season. That helped move the chains in the running game and wear down Iowa’s defense.

“We just tried to have a little fun with it,” Brohm said, “and keep Iowa on their heels and give them something they hadn’t seen before. To be honest, it worked that week. I tried it the next week (against Wisconsin), and it didn’t work.”

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When Brohm thinks about the Iowa matchup annually, he has a short list of things that his team needs to do to win. He knows that the Hawkeyes want to slow the game down and limit possessions. He also knows they don’t want to get into a shootout, where they’re forced to throw the football frequently.

“We also have to figure out a way to also beat them at what they’re good at, which means we can’t lose the turnover battle,” Brohm said. “If you (commit) turnovers against Iowa, you will lose the game. We just preach it. We understand it.

"You have to find ways to stop their offense and get a lead on them. If you can get a lead on them, then you take them out of their comfort zone and make them do things they don’t want to do.

“Now, I think we’ve played well. I think we’ve executed. We’ve had some luck. Those things factor into it. At any given time, we know that course can change the other way. They’ve won a lot of football games. And if you want to win the West, it goes through Wisconsin and Iowa every year.”

And maybe this year, it’ll go through West Lafayette. Maybe on Nov. 5 at Ross-Ade Stadium when the hungry Hawkeyes come to town.

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.