Instant analysis: Ready or not for Iowa football, here comes the Big Ten slate

IOWA CITY — Well, that wasn't pretty.

The nearly sold-out Kinnick Stadium crowd expected a dominating performance start to finish but saw a more captivating — and stressful — outcome: Iowa pulling away from Colorado State, 24-14, with a strong third-quarter performance. 

Like they have all season, the defense served as the sparkplug. Midway through the third quarter, linebacker Jack Campbell recovered a fumble inside the Colorado State 10-yard line that set up a Tyrone Tracy Jr. touchdown run on the next play. The defense then forced a three-and-out and Iowa scored a second consecutive touchdown behind a Spencer Petras-to-Sam LaPorta 27-yard pass. 

Head coach Kirk Ferentz will gladly take the double-digit win and the perfect 4-0 start to the season, but the real test is only just beginning. 

Ready or not, Iowa, the rest of your Big Ten schedule is here.

Saturday's result featured more negatives in a season of mostly positives. Mostly in the first half. In those 30 minutes, Colorado State's offense dominated total plays (41 to Iowa's 23) and third-down conversions (9-for-13). Petras' interception-free streak came to an end while also setting the Rams up for the go-ahead score before halftime.

There were bright spots: Campbell nearly joined the rare 20-tackle club with 18 total takedowns. Offensively, four different players — LaPorta, Tyler Goodson, Keagan Johnson and Charlie Jones — each caught a pass of 20-plus yards. 

Johnson, a true freshman, broke out with two 40-plus yard receptions. His 43-yard touchdown reception was Petras' career long. 

In the end, Iowa's mixed bag performance leaves uncertainty ahead of Big Ten play with one large, overarching question: Is this a team that just wins ugly? Or are there serious concerns? 

The second half resembled the Hawkeyes of the past nine games: a playmaking defense, field-flipping special teams and an opportunistic offense.

The first half took fans back to the last time Iowa lost: October 31, 2020, vs. Northwestern, where that complementary football wasn't present. 

While Iowa rode an up-and-down game to a win, on the east coast, Maryland, their opponent next Saturday, easily handled Kent State, whom Iowa played last Saturday. Any previous discussions of next Friday night's contest being a "trap game" are out of the window as the Terrapins will also boast a 4-0 record. 

That's now a legitimate, Big Ten battle.

The following week, Iowa returns home for a potential top-10 matchup vs. Penn State. 

Would a win vs. Colorado State look similar, just as ugly, as a win vs. Maryland, Penn State or Wisconsin? Is that just what these Hawkeyes do? Maybe. But the good news for Iowa is those types of performances have gotten them into the top 10. 

For the fourth week in a row, the defense held up (despite early adversity) and the offense did enough. The best-case scenario has come true: Iowa is undefeated entering the rest of Big Ten play. 

But Saturday's result is still bittersweet. Iowa did enough to win the game, and did so convincingly in the second half by a 17-0 margin, but many of the same questions that loomed entering Saturday were not answered as a result of the sputtering start. 

Iowa has little time to fine-tune those areas of concern as they'll hit the road on a short week.

The training wheels are off and it's time to see what the rest of the season has in store. 

Kennington Smith is the Iowa Hawkeyes beat writer for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at ksmith@gannett.com