Iowa's turnovers-to-points streak symbolizes culture of 'team football' wins
27 straight games without giving up 25 points.
15 straight nonconference wins (including bowls, longest in the country).
11 straight wins overall, only the third 10-game win streak in the Kirk Ferentz era.
Several streaks helped write the story of Iowa's meteoric rise to a No. 3 national ranking through five weeks. One of those streaks ended last Friday at Maryland, but it holds the same importance. It helped shape the narrative of this season but in many ways represented the Hawkeyes' overall identity of team football.
14 straight turnovers converted into points in the first five games of the 2021 season.
Riley Moss' two pick-sixes against Indiana on September 4 set the tone. Three weeks later, linebacker Jack Campbell recovered a fumble in the third quarter against Colorado State and on the next play receiver Tyrone Tracy Jr. scampered into the end zone for a Hawkeyes' touchdown. At that point, Iowa converted all nine turnovers on the season into 51 points.
The following week against Maryland served as the pinnacle. A 31-point second-quarter explosion in which 21 points came off turnovers. Then veteran defensive back Terry Roberts intercepted a pass at the halftime buzzer, and because Iowa's offense couldn't immediately answer, the streak appeared over.
But Iowa received the opening second-half kick and Tyler Goodson scored on a 68-yard pass. Technically, Iowa's offense scored on the next possible opportunity and by popular social media demand, the streak lived on at 14 straight.
Safety Kaevon Merriweather's early fourth-quarter interception and subsequent Iowa punt ended the streak for good but the total statistics are something to marvel: 14 turnovers turned into 82 points, an average of 5.8 points per turnover.
It included three defensive scores, three field goals and one turnover by special teams, a forced fumble by reserve safety Sebastian Castro against Maryland. All three phases of the game working together as one. It doesn't get much more Iowa football than that.
"Team football is a huge part of our program and why we've had success in the past," tight end Sam LaPorta said. "Field position is a huge thing for us and ball security. We always talk about how field position and turnovers turn into points."
Let's start with the defense that's tied for first in the nation with 16 takeaways this year. How does Iowa force so many turnovers? Some may call it luck but the defenders will tell you otherwise.
"It's not luck because we're in the position we're supposed to be in," Kaevon Merriweather said. "Every time we make a play or interception, that player is supposed be there; it's just the quarterback making a mistake and we're capitalizing on that.
"I think that's what we do very well is we're on top of our keys so once that quarterback makes a mistake we're able to capitalize on it right then and there."
From there, it becomes the offense's job to turn opponent mistakes into Iowa points. Fortunately, they've been able to capitalize in the all-important field position battle.
Iowa's offense ranks last in the Big Ten in total yardage. Two reasons for that: early-season struggles and frequently playing on a short field due to the defense's takeaways. According to SportsSource Analytics, Iowa's offense has started drives in opposing territory 25% of the time, the highest percentage in the nation.
Iowa is fourth in the conference in scoring (33.2 points per game), sixth in red zone offense (84.2% scoring rate) and eighth in total offensive touchdowns (17).
The numbers can improve but when given the opportunity to score on a short field, Iowa generally has done that. That's what led to Maryland's demise last Friday night. Down 7-3, Iowa's offense drove down the field for a touchdown drive to reclaim a 10-7 lead. Castro's fumble-turned-touchdown gave Iowa a two-possession lead before the Terrapins got the ball back.
"That pretty much took the heart out of their football team," Ferentz said. "That bang, bang, demoralizing. Get two scores before they even snap the ball. That's a really good deal.
"Kind of the same discussion as getting in the red zone. You want to come out with touchdowns if you can. Any points are better than no points, but you want to get touchdowns. Those are all good things. Opportunistic teams learn how to do that."
The streak is over but starting another one will be critical to Iowa's success on Saturday against No. 4 Penn State. The Nittany Lions rank second in the Big Ten in turnover margin (+6) and have turned the ball over just three times all season.
In one of the biggest games for Iowa in a few decades, it will take a team effort once again to come out victorious. That's no problem for the Hawkeyes. Team football is what brought them here and ultimately what will carry them to their end-of-the-season goals should they reach them.
"That's guys buying into the process of everything," quarterback Spencer Petras said. "If all three phases do their job then we're going to have good results. That's really good team football and if we can continue doing that then we're going to be happy."
Kennington Smith is the new Iowa Hawkeyes beat writer for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org