Iowa takeaways: Hawkeyes' punt game? It was gone with the wind.
IOWA CITY, Ia. — It was a brutal day for Iowa’s punt units, culminating in muff by a senior that cost the Hawkeyes three fourth-quarter points.
Sophomore punter Colten Rastetter averaged a mere 29.7 yards on his six attempts, struggling to launch anything into a 20-mph wind.
Punt returner Matt VandeBerg, who reclaimed that job from Josh Jackson four weeks ago, didn’t acquit himself well, either. The fifth-year senior wide receiver watched a third-quarter punt with the wind sail well over his head for 68 yards, picking it up after a couple of bounces to salvage five yards of field position.
In the fourth quarter, Purdue’s Joe Schopper lofted a punt that couldn’t cut through the wind and sent VandeBerg racing upfield to try to keep it from bouncing. At his 24-yard line, VandeBerg dived to the turf but couldn’t control the football, watching it squirt away for a fumble that the Boilermakers recovered.
Purdue turned that into its final points of the game, a field goal for a 24-9 lead.
“I thought I could field it clean, and obviously I was wrong,” VandeBerg said. “I knew that he was kicking into the wind, but I’ve still got to come up with that. I felt confident that I could get there.”
In a season that has been maddeningly inconsistent for Iowa, one constant has been a mystifying inability to gain ground in the punt return phase. The Hawkeyes now have 79 punt return yards in 11 games, including just 21 in Big Ten play; they had minus-3 Saturday.
'Add that to the list'
When Iowa gets to spring practice, it’ll be searching for three new starting linebackers — with seniors Josey Jewell, Bo Bower and Ben Niemann on their way out. When making decisions, Iowa coaches put a premium on limiting mistakes.
Two young linebackers who will be starting candidates in 2018 made a big one early in Saturday’s game.
After the Hawkeyes' defense forced a punt on Purdue’s first drive, true sophomore Amani Jones and redshirt freshman Nick Niemann clobbered punter Joe Schopper — an aggressive play, but a regrettable 15-yard roughing penalty.
That led to the Boilermakers’ only first-half touchdown and a 7-0 lead.
“Add that to the list on special teams,” head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Anytime you try to pressure the punter, which we did — that was our call on the play — the risk is bumping into him, running into him. And we had not one but two players do that.
“So kind of takes me right back (in 2007) at Indiana. It was a big play in that game, and gave them new life and they capitalized.”
Young players making mistakes seems to be the theme of 2017. How quickly they can correct them will be key going into 2018.
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On Iowa’s first play from scrimmage, Nate Stanley threw a short, safe pass to tight end Noah Fant. It should’ve gained about five yards. But the sophomore flat-out dropped it.
It was an ominous sign of things to come. The Hawkeyes suffered five drops a week ago in a 38-14 loss at Wisconsin and four more Saturday — one each by Fant, Matt VandeBerg, Nick Easley and Ihmir Smith-Marsette.
The one to Smith-Marsette probably was the most costly. On a third-and-9 on Iowa first drive of the second half — right after Purdue swiftly marched to take a 14-9 lead — Stanley lobbed a deep ball to the true freshman. He had the ball hit him in the hands up the left sideline before it fell incomplete to the ground.
Naturally, Smith-Marsette (the hero of Iowa’s Week 2 win at Iowa State) made some tougher catches as the game went on.
How to address the inconsistency?
“Just coming out and being completely focused. Not worrying about running before you catch the ball,” Stanley said, before putting some of the blame on himself. “But some of those balls, I could put in a better spot.”
Easley (five catches, 60 yards) and tight end T.J. Hockenson (three catches, 33 yards) remain Iowa’s most reliable targets in the passing game.
“Everything’s positive between everybody. We’re saying, ‘Get the next one,’" Hockenson said. "You can’t get down on each other.”
Iowa had allowed only 16 sacks this season heading into Saturday’s game. The Hawkeyes said they were ready for the multiple fronts that Purdue employs, and the fact that the Boilermakers blitz about 40 percent of the time.
It sure didn’t look like it.
Purdue sacked Stanley six times for 44 yards, appearing to confound the Iowa offensive line in the process.
“They're a high-pressure outfit. We knew that,” Ferentz said. “But a couple of them were just mental errors where we cut guys loose, a couple more guys getting beat. And that part, you can live with. But the mental errors, we're not going to win football games where you just cut a guy loose. And we did that a couple of times.”
Senior guard Sean Welsh was disappointed in the way his unit pass-protected while acknowledging that the Purdue defense is better this season than it has been in the recent past.
“That’s certainly a point of pride for us, to keep the quarterback clean,” he said. “To even let him get touched once is not good enough. Six times is not going to cut it.
“We prepared for multiple fronts, and I just don’t think we carried that to the field like we would have wanted to.”
Two of Iowa’s first three drives were ended by third-down sacks as the offense never got on track.
Before the college football season, Holiday Bowl committee members — for fun — write down who they think will end up playing in their game. Steve Horton, the Holiday Bowl rep in attendance at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, wrote down Stanford vs. Iowa.
“Could happen,” he said before the game. “Never know.”
Probably not now, after Iowa's loss to Purdue. The Dec. 28 game in San Diego might have been picking between Iowa and perhaps Northwestern or Michigan, but now the Hawkeyes can finish no better than 7-5, while those teams are probably going to have more wins and better resumes.
Now, the Music City (Nashville) and Pinstripe (New York City) are probably Iowa's two most likely bowl options, and there's an outside shot at slipping to the Foster Farms (Santa Clara, California).