'Crazy' opportunity awaits 10-0 Iowa in Kinnick chill

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Every week that passes during this magical Iowa football season seems to bring the biggest game yet.

And that’s true again at 11 a.m. Saturday inside Kinnick Stadium, even if the sixth-ranked Hawkeyes' opponent is 23-point underdog Purdue.

With a win, the wildest dreams of everyone associated with Hawkeye football get to continue for at least another six days. With a win, the Hawkeyes would be 11-0. They'd equal a school record for victories in a season and clinch a spot in the Big Ten Conference championship game Dec. 5 in Indianapolis.

Opportunity is here. And capitalizing on it has been the story of the 2015 season.

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, left, hugs center Austin Blythe as  Iowa beat Minnesota, 40-35, last week. Ferentz will see Blythe and 20 other seniors make their last Kinnick Stadium appearance as collegians on Saturday.

“Last year, we left opportunity on the table, and I've mentioned that many times,” coach Kirk Ferentz said. “That's one thing we're doing a better job of this year, is taking what's out there and trying to maximize it.”

In 2014, Iowa wasn’t playing great football but still found itself with a 7-3 record with two regular-season games to go. With wins in both, it would have won the Big Ten West title. As you know by now, both were home losses (first to Wisconsin, then to Nebraska) by a combined five points.

A theme since January has been to not let that happen again. Behind new starting quarterback C.J. Beathard, better in-house leadership and lessons learned from reading personal-development book “The Slight Edge,” daily disciplines became the focus. That’s daily — as in one day at a time, an attitude that continues to stick with this unified group.

Canzeri's Iowa career marked with faith, perseverance

“We know even though we’re comfortable, even though we’re having great games, even though we’re having the wins that we want,” running back Jordan Canzeri said, “we know that if we let off the gas that a team could bite us.”

Enter Purdue.

The Boilermakers are the second-largest underdog (to North Texas) that Iowa will face this season. But even though they’re 2-8, they hung 55 points on Nebraska and played Michigan State within three points in East Lansing.

They also lost at home to Illinois by 34 and Minnesota by 28. They're hit-and-miss.

“I think any time you go and you play a ranked opponent … that gives you a little bit more hype,” Purdue coach Darrell Hazell said. ”Shouldn't, but it does.”

Bring on winter

Raise your hand if you’ve heard this one: The best Ferentz teams play their best football in November. It’s no coincidence that coincides with an ability to play physical, run-pounding football.

And with that introduction comes wintry weather that was set to hit Eastern Iowa on Friday. Although the snow might be gone by kickoff, the forecast is for cold and windy conditions. To prepare, Iowa practiced outdoors in the rain Tuesday and Wednesday.

The weather could play nicely into the hands of an Iowa rush offense that is clicking (270-plus yards in three of the last five games) and ranks second in the Big Ten. Purdue’s rush defense is the Big Ten's worst (at 209.6 yards a game).

“We’ve had a good running game the majority of the year,” said Beathard, whose mobility will be something to watch in pregame warm-ups after he suffered a painful hip pointer late in last week’s 40-35 win over Minnesota. “We’ve just got to continue to improve and play our style of football, and we should be all right.”

Purdue also has the league’s worst rushing offense; Iowa’s rush defense ranks third. And if the wind is kicking up, that could put Purdue and freshman quarterback David Blough in a tough spot: Can't run, tough to throw.

Blough, the Boilermakers’ 10th different starting QB since the 2008 season, is making his eighth straight start, so he's settling in. He does have a Big Ten-best three touchdown passes of 60-plus yards this season — including one in last week’s 21-14 loss at Northwestern.

Big plays burned Iowa in its worst defensive performance of the season last week vs. the Gophers. Ferentz was more concerned with giving up three big plays than the defense as a whole.

Each week before games, Iowa’s defensive coaches post goals for points allowed, yards allowed, yards per rush and turnovers. Iowa didn’t meet any of those against Minnesota. You can bet the Hawkeye defenders will play with a chip on their shoulders Saturday.

Iowa had been allowing 15.3 points a game until a combined 62 the past two weeks.

“Even when we were giving up points, everybody was sprinting to the ball (against Minnesota),” linebacker Ben Niemann said. “We were aggressive, and I don’t think it was a lack of effort or anything like that.

“We kind of want to rebound and obviously have a better week.”

Protect ... and serve up a title

Don’t underestimate this stat in Iowa’s unbeaten run: The Hawkeyes haven’t lost the turnover margin in any of their past nine games.

At plus-11 for the season, Iowa ranks sixth in FBS. That rate needs to continue against a Purdue team that has forced 19 turnovers, including 12 interceptions (second in the Big Ten to the Desmond King-led Hawkeyes).

Iowa has not lost a fumble since Oct. 3 at Wisconsin. Its last offensive turnover, period, was a second-quarter interception thrown by Beathard Oct. 17 at Northwestern.

“Turnover-takeaway ratio might not be flashy or sexy,” Ferentz said, “but it's really critical to success.”

The Hawkeyes’ two Big Ten championship teams under Ferentz also had his best turnover margins in 17 years — plus-15 in 2002, plus-13 in 2004.

With a win Saturday (or a Wisconsin loss to Northwestern), Iowa would be guaranteed its first Big Ten West title since divisional formats began in 2011. It would be only the fifth different team to play in the league championship game, joining Wisconsin (three times), Michigan State (two), Ohio State (two) and Nebraska (one).

Talk about opportunity. It’s here, wrapped in cold, wind and maybe snow.

“Beginning of the season, our goal was to win every game,” wide receiver Tevaun Smith said. “To actually be able to win every game so far is actually pretty crazy. Just to know we’re only two games away from being undefeated in the regular season is pushing us even more.”

Going to 11-0 would be the ultimate Kinnick Stadium sendoff for Smith and the 20 other seniors.

“Some of my best friends are seniors and it’ll be our last home game,” said Beathard, a junior. “So we want to go out there and give it our all, especially for them.”

Saturday's game

Who: Iowa (10-0, 6-0 Big Ten) vs. Purdue (2-8, 1-5)

When/where: 11 a.m., Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City

TV: ESPN2 (Announcers: Beth Mowins, Anthony Becht)

Line: Iowa is favored by 23

Forecast: Winter storm overnight, with snow ending by late morning; NNW winds at 20-30 mph, high of 28 degrees.

Security measures: Because of recent international incidents, Iowa is moving to a “clear-bag” policy at Kinnick Stadium. No purses, backpacks or handbags will be allowed. More details can be found here.

Iowa’s 21 seniors to be honored before the game: OL Austin Blythe, RB Jordan Canzeri, DL Darian Cooper, FB Adam Cox, DB Sean Draper, TE Jake Duzey, LB Cole Fisher, WR Jacob Hillyer, P Dillon Kidd, K Marshall Koehn, TE Henry Krieger Coble, DB Jordan Lomax, DE Nate Meier, DE Drew Ott, LB Travis Perry, FB Macon Plewa, OL Eric Simmons, WR Tevaun Smith, DE Melvin Spears, WR Andrew Stone, OL Jordan Walsh.