Hawkeyes cap 4-0 start with rout of North Texas
IOWA CITY, Ia. — These Hawkeyes may not be perfect. But their record is. And, debunking what most outsiders thought over the past eight-plus months, here they stand at 4-0 after Saturday's 62-16 beatdown of North Texas before an announced crowd of 56,041 at Kinnick Stadium.
Raise your hand if you predicted that on the night of Jan. 2.
If your hand is still up, the Iowa football players might not be convinced of your honesty.
"We had more confidence in us than anybody else did on the outside," Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard said after throwing for a career-high 278 yards, then watching comfortably from the sidelines as the defense recorded two late touchdowns to help inflate the final margin. "I don't think anybody else had us (4-0), other than us and these coaches."
It's been much-discussed, but this group of Hawkeyes has different leadership, and a refocused mentality. Iowa senior safety Jordan Lomax said there's absolutely been a concerted effort to prove doubters wrong — starting in the weight room with strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle.
"Coming into the season, there was a lot of negative noise. We had to block that out and realize we control our own destiny," Lomax said. "And that's what we've been doing thus far."
What's different? We know there's a new QB — the one that completed his first 15 passes Saturday. And there's more positive leadership. But it gets back to the little things, which is exactly what head coach Kirk Ferentz has been preaching since a program recommitment in the days following a 45-28 shellacking to Tennessee at the Jan. 2 TaxSlayer Bowl.
Expectations on the outside became tempered. ESPN.com's win projections over the summer gave Iowa just a 1-in-6 chance at a 4-0 start. The Hawkeyes have bucked those odds, Lomax said, by "playing the correct Iowa football way" in wins over Illinois State, Iowa State, Pittsburgh and Dan McCarney's Mean Green.
So what's been corrected?
"You can see we're finishing more as a team. We're playing a lot more physical," Lomax said. "We're playing with a lot more confidence. We're playing a lot smarter."
Finishing — that was epitomized Saturday after a strong start and shaky middle.
Jordan Canzeri rushed for two of his school-record-tying four touchdowns in the first quarter, then Beathard whipped touchdown passes of 43 (to George Kittle) and 81 yards (Tevaun Smith) on back-to-back throws to give Iowa a 28-3 lead less than 5 minutes into the second quarter.
There was correctable stuff. A poorly-executed reverse on Derrick Mitchell Jr.'s first career carry set up North Texas (0-3) for a short-field touchdown, and the Conference USA's Mean Green became the first team this season to effectively run against the Hawkeyes (183 rushing yards against a defense allowing 51.0 per game). Canzeri wound up with 22 carries (for 115 yards), probably seven to 10 more than would have been desired in a perfect world.
But while this wasn't a perfect Saturday, Iowa didn't need it to be.
"There's obviously things you can do better and I can do better and we can do better as a team," Beathard said. "But we're 4-0, and that's where we want to be at this point. Going into the Big Ten, we've just got to continue to get better and keep this momentum going."
There was a lot of really good stuff to talk about.
There were no obvious significant injuries, namely to Beathard — who finished 18-for-21 and had perhaps his least-adventurous game of 2015. The junior improved to 5-0 as a starter and was barely touched, and that is welcome news after his body was pounded in last week's 27-24 win against Pittsburgh. He only scrambled once for nine yards and wasn't sacked.
Mitchell, after his first career carry went officially for minus-14 yards, uncorked a 45-yard run in the fourth quarter to offer more comfort in Iowa's run-game depth.
Starting middle linebacker Josey Jewell delivered a pick-six that helped put the game out of reach late in the third quarter, and backup linebacker Bo Bower extended the final margin with his own pick-six with 2:47 to go.
Despite some hiccups, there wasn't a hang-on-for-dear-life finish like 2009 — the last time a Hawkeye team started 4-0 — against Arkansas State. This is how you finish.
"They showed up today with good tempo on the game field," Ferentz said. "We had some plays that weren't so clean, but overall the effort and the attitude of our players really helped us move forward."
The second-team defensive line got rotated into the game on North Texas' fourth possession, and the Hawkeyes dispatched reserves almost exclusively in the fourth quarter.
"It definitely gives us confidence going into next week, which is what we wanted," said Cole Fisher, who again led Iowa in tackles. He and Jewell had nine each. "We didn't want to have any battle out there going into Wisconsin. We wanted to get out there, do our job, get it done and now we'll focus on Wisconsin this week."
There's the W word. And not wins, of which Iowa is two away from bowl eligibility before the calendar reaches October.
Up next: Wisconsin, in the Oct. 3 Big Ten opener at Camp Randall Stadium. Ferentz emphasizes taking one game at a time, not stressing any opponent. Phooey. Center Austin Blythe's mindset shifted immediately to the reigning Big Ten West champions after coming to the bench for good early in the fourth quarter.
"We just thought about going up to Camp Randall (at that moment)," Blythe said, "and playing our best game of football next week."