Leistikow: Amid flashes, concerns, imperfect Iowa entertains in opener
IOWA CITY, Ia. — The weather was perfect for Saturday’s season opener at Kinnick Stadium. Iowa’s performance wasn’t.
The 15th-ranked Hawkeyes didn’t accomplish everything they wanted to in their 45-21 victory against Miami of Ohio before 68,390 fans. But …
There were two reasons for that.
The offense was almost too good, scoring too quickly to put the defense back on the field.
And that defense was … well, let’s see how it looks with Josey Jewell in the lineup next week against Iowa State.
The junior linebacker’s first-quarter ejection for targeting is either the big asterisk for why the defense allowed touchdown drives of 75, 74 and 75 yards … or an easy excuse for why the Hawkeyes struggled to stop a Mid-American Conference opponent with five wins over the last three seasons.
Kirk Ferentz wasn’t going down too far down Excuse Road, not after improving to 1-0. Though there were positives the 18th-year coach could point to — the offense (more on that later) and the plus-3 turnover margin — injuries and unforeseen circumstances are indeed part of this violent sport.
That untested Jack Hockaday was at middle linebacker instead of team captain Jewell was how Saturday unfolded. And four-touchdown favorite Iowa won by 24.
“That’s football. We’re going to have guys come out of the game,” Ferentz said. “If we’re going to look for excuses, it’s not going to take us very far. I think we’ll be better with (Jewell) in there. But what if he’s not this week? We’ve got to keep pushing, and that’s the challenge.”
Still, Ferentz used the word “demoralizing” to describe how the RedHawks gained 424 yards, 25 first downs and accrued 36 minutes, 21 seconds of possession against a defense that his own first-team offense has trouble running against in practice.
“I’m trying to equate that a little bit,” Ferentz said.
A combination of being puzzled and worried, perhaps.
But here’s some comforting news: As long as C.J. Beathard is in the lineup, this Hawkeye offense has a chance to outscore anybody on the schedule.
The fifth-year senior quarterback was sharp and in control as he played a full game healthy for the first time in almost a year.
The Hawkeyes scored touchdowns on four of their first five possessions.
Despite having the ball for less than 12 minutes in the first half, Iowa averaged 11 yards a play and scored 28 points.
Beathard was so content with the offense that he didn’t have to scramble. Or at least he didn’t choose to.
“It never really presented itself,” he said. “We were really good on first and second downs, so we weren’t put into many third-and-long situations. … There was no need to really run.”
When Iowa wanted to score, it seemed like it could.
“We were running the ball at will against those guys, it seemed like,” Beathard said of the Akrum Wadley-LeShun Daniels tandem that combined for 22 carries, 204 yards and four TDs without a negative attempt.
Iowa was so confident on offense, that it went for a fourth-and-6 from Miami’s 12-yard line early in the third quarter. And it scored, when Beathard zinged one to Jerminic Smith in traffic for a touchdown and a 35-7 lead. But ...
The concerning stuff cropped up. Beathard was 12-of-15 for 186 yards at that point, but went 1-of-5 for six yards the rest of the way.
The depth Iowa should’ve been able to build Saturday, it couldn’t. Miami cut the deficit to 35-21 on Billy Bahl’s second touchdown pass to James Gardner with 9:43 left.
The starters played heavy snap counts, again, like they did last year when the scoring defense faded from 15 points per game in the first eight games to 27 in the last six.
But, hey, at least Jewell will be fresh for the Cyclones. And Beathard is still healthy. And the ceiling remains high for this team. But …
“You could definitely ask for better,” Beathard said. “There are a lot of mistakes on the field we need to clean up.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.