'Lighthearted' Riley Moss leads brilliant Iowa defensive performance in blowout win over Indiana

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY — Was it preparation or premonition?

Even Riley Moss seemed unable to explain how he managed to turn Saturday’s highly anticipated Iowa football season opener into a first-half highlight reel starring himself, then a real bore of a second half.

No. 18 Iowa pummeled No. 17 Indiana 34-6 in front of 68,166 fans who were thrilled to be back inside Kinnick Stadium. Moss, a senior cornerback from Ankeny, was as excited to see them as they were to see him score a pair of touchdowns, even if that meant the Big Ten Conference showdown everyone expected was laughably one-sided instead.

“It’s weird and it’s hard to explain,” Moss said afterward, “but sometimes I just feel like something’s going to happen. And I don’t know what that is. But I just go with it.”

Moss was still trying to fathom what he’d just accomplished after becoming the first Hawkeye defensive back to return two interceptions for touchdowns in the same game since Josh Jackson did so at Wisconsin in 2017. Moss idolized Jackson during his all-American season, he said.

And now he had mimicked him.

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Iowa senior defensive back Riley Moss runs an interception back to the end zone for an Iowa touchdown in the first quarter against Indiana at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021.

Moss struck first on Indiana’s opening possession. The Hawkeyes were in a Cover-2 defense on a third-and-6 play. Moss had receivers in front of and behind him, but seemed to sense immediately that Hoosier quarterback Michael Penix Jr. was going to try to connect with his closest target. The pass had more velocity than was required. Moss saw an ideal scenario unfolding.

“I was ready to break on it and tackle him, and then I see the ball pop up and I got super excited. I was foaming from the mouth, caught the ball and took off quick,” said Moss, a high school track star. “It happened quick, and I didn’t realize I scored a touchdown until I was on the bench and I was like, ‘Holy cow, that just happened.’”

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It was a 30-yard jaunt into the north end zone that gave Iowa a 14-0 lead just 2 minutes and 15 seconds into the game.

How do you top that? Moss found a way.

Just before halftime, Indiana appeared to get a huge break it desperately needed. The Hoosier defense recovered a fumble near midfield to set up an offense that has a reputation for being explosive. Indiana trailed 21-3 and was set to receive the second-half kickoff. A touchdown would make for an uneasy intermission for the home crowd.

The Hawkeye defense was in cover-3 this time.

“I just read the quarterback, and he was staring down the whole time. I didn’t even back up,” Moss said. “I just played the ball, and a good thing came of it.”

Moss darted in front of an Indiana receiver along his own sideline this time, catching Penix’s pass in stride and breezing 55 yards for another touchdown. It was the third of his career, on his eighth interception.

It was game over. Indiana, which entered Kinnick Stadium with offensive star power in Penix, wide receiver Ty Fryfogle and running back Stephen Carr, was just the latest victim of a Phil Parker-coached Iowa defense. The Hoosiers looked dumbfounded as they ran 64 plays and found that nothing worked.

Penix completed 14 of 31 passes for 156 yards and three interceptions before being benched in the fourth quarter. Another five of his passes could have been picked off. He was on his heels and off target all game.

Fryfogle caught five passes for 84 yards, his two biggest catches setting up the two Hoosier field goals.

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Carr carried 19 times for 57 yards, with a long gain of 14. He was never a factor. Indiana punted eight times and gained only 233 yards.

“We absolutely won because of film (study) and our preparation for today,” Moss said.

“It was all (Parker), to be honest with you. It was him and coach (Seth) Wallace. … It’s always the little things that they preach that make us a little bit better than the rest. Those little things matter in big situations. Third-down stops. Shedding blocks. Staying on top. Jamming. Those type of things.”

It’s that constant work on small details that apparently allows Moss to get that feeling that “something’s about to happen.”

But it’s not just him.

Junior Dane Belton, who plays the vital “cash” position in Iowa’s defense, got his first career interception moments after Moss scored his second touchdown. Belton, a childhood friend of Penix from back in Tampa, Florida, noticed that the Hoosier quarterback wasn’t getting much elevation on passes that he was intending to throw out of bounds. Sure enough, Belton found himself covering a running back in the flat, trying to decide whether to stay put or rush Penix, when a pass whistled his direction.

Belton has been working with passing machines for a year-and-a-half to strengthen his hands and sharpen his reflexes for just such moments.

“It was a quick play and it was natural,” he said with pride of the difficult catch he made look easy.

It set up an Iowa field goal. That meant that half of Iowa’s points came from the three turnovers the defense generated.

Not a bad day’s work.

“They demand a lot out of us. They keep that standard set,” Belton said of Iowa’s defensive coaches.

“We’re confident against anybody.”

Iowa extended its streak of seasons with at least one pick-six to 14. The Hawkeyes have played 23 consecutive games without surrendering 25 points, the longest streak in the nation among Power 5 teams. This offseason, Parker became the program’s first assistant coach to be given a salary of $1 million or more. All of those facts certainly go hand in hand.

As for Moss, the shaggy-haired, earring-wearing, devil-may-care cornerback from Ankeny who refers to the opposing quarterback as “their dude?”

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz pointed out that it wasn’t until Moss’s junior year at Ankeny Centennial that his staff began recruiting him in earnest. He just kept impressing the Hawkeyes, although he wasn’t the biggest star on the recruiting trail. Once he got to campus, Moss continued on that path.

“He’s a little bit loose and light. He’s a lighthearted guy,” Ferentz said.

“But he competes hard out there. He’s got a lot of pride in what he does.”

Mark Emmert is the editor of the Iowa City Press-Citizen and the Burlington Hawk Eye. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.