Leistikow: Back to the drawing board for Iowa football's offense after home dud vs. Purdue
IOWA CITY — The official in the South end zone signaled touchdown late in the third quarter, a ruling that appeared to expand Purdue’s lead to 17 points and all but secure a major college football upset.
But replays showed that receiver TJ Sheffield fumbled the ball before reaching the end zone. When the touchdown was (correctly) overturned to not only a turnover but a touchback, it felt like second-ranked Iowa had the break it needed to get back on its feet.
You thought, even for a few seconds, that maybe the Hawkeyes were going to find some of that Kinnick Stadium magic that was present last week against Penn State.
But as quickly as Iowa’s chance arose to get back into the game, it fell flat to the ground.
Sack, sack, incomplete pass, punt.
“I’ve probably got to do a better job of getting the ball out of my hand if I can,” said Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras, who threw four interceptions — including one each on the final three desperation possessions — after having thrown just two in his previous eight starts. “That’s a big turning point. … If we score there, that’s huge. We didn’t. Plenty of moments like that on tape. We’ve got to do better.”
That three-play offensive sequence summed up an excruciatingly painful 24-7 home loss to the Boilermakers.
For a team ranked No. 2 in the country playing at home, driving 80 yards against a Purdue defense shouldn’t be that hard. Instead, Iowa went backwards for 10 yards.
As head coach Kirk Ferentz would say afterward, the only real positive for Iowa was its punt- and kick-return game.
Yes, the Hawkeyes had their worst defensive performance since allowing Wisconsin to rush for 300-plus yards in a 24-22 loss in the 2019 season. Plenty of blame goes to Phil Parker’s side of the ball.
But the especially troubling part of this loss was that it looked like Brian Ferentz’s offense was incapable of keeping pace when the defense is off.
After the first play, that is. On Iowa's first snap Saturday, Petras threw a quick slant to wide receiver Keagan Johnson. The true freshman bounced off and through tacklers to gain 38 yards, a rousing start for the nation’s No. 2 team.
After that, Iowa threw 31 passes for a total of 157 yards, just 5.1 per attempt, and committed four turnovers.
After that, Iowa picked up just 76 rushing yards on 30 attempts, a 2.5 average (four sacks included). Even the old-reliable quarterback sneak failed on a fourth-and-1 inside Purdue’s 10-yard line, extinguishing Iowa's final flicker of fourth-quarter hope.
“It came down to execution,” Iowa center Tyler Linderbaum said. “They were more ready than us.”
This week, a lot of folks in the Iowa fan base and national pundits were saying something like this: That it would take a complete collapse for the Hawkeyes not to reach the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis.
I cringed at that sentiment, because I knew this Purdue game would not be easy for Iowa. Nor will the Hawkeyes’ next one, Oct. 30 at Wisconsin, even if the 3-3 Badgers are having a down year. And no educated Hawkeye follower should feel comfortable going against Northwestern and Pat Fitzgerald, as Iowa does Nov. 6 in Evanston.
And even after those three West Division games, there are three more (Minnesota, Illinois, Nebraska) against programs that are desperate and overdue to take down the Hawkeyes, who have been playing with a target on their backs since a top-10 road win in Week 2 at Iowa State.
Yes, Iowa (6-1 overall, 3-1 Big Ten) can still capably carve a path to Indianapolis for the first time since 2015. Winning out plus one Purdue loss would make that happen. But if the Hawkeyes do get to Indy and then face the nation's No. 1 offense in Ohio State?
That could get way uglier than Saturday, and on a much bigger stage.
So, it's back to the drawing board for the Iowa offense. Big time. This off week comes at an important time.
Outside of Linderbaum, the up-front blocking just isn't there. For every 32-yard Tyler Goodson run, there are too many of minus-4 or no gain. It's hard to fix offensive-line problems this late in the season, but solutions need to be explored.
The team's expected top receiver, Tyrone Tracy Jr., has 12 catches for 83 yards this season. Johnson — who in limited play has accounted for four of Iowa's longest nine plays from scrimmage this season — might need to become a focal point. He had just two targets Saturday after that big first play, and fellow talented freshman Arland Bruce IV just had one.
But it's fair to take a breath, as Iowa's all-American center suggested in postgame interviews Saturday.
"When stuff like this happens, you can’t freak out," Linderbaum said. "There’s a reason why we have six wins, the way we’ve been operating, stuff like that. Just look to each other, look to your teammates and just be yourselves."
After the game, Ferentz attested that it's difficult for college kids to adjust emotionally after a monumental win like last week's against Penn State. His mind went back to the 1983 season, when he was a 28-year-old assistant coach under Hayden Fry. The week after those Hawkeyes knocked off No. 3 Ohio State, 20-14, they went to Illinois and got trucked.
"It was 33-0 with a good football team," Ferentz, 66, recalled. "Those things happen. They never taste good or feel good but you have to get back on your feet, go back to work."
And, in maybe a sick way, returning to Madison in two weeks should be as much motivation as anything for Brian Ferentz.
Back in 2017, Iowa went to Camp Randall Stadium and got embarrassed. The Hawkeyes gained just 66 yards — the lowest of the Kirk Ferentz era — in a 38-14 loss, in which defensive back Josh Jackson scored both Iowa touchdowns.
Why bring that up now? Because that humbling day occurred the week after Iowa's previous win against a top-five opponent, the 55-24 shellacking of then-No. 3 Ohio State.
Looking back, maybe we can understand that crash-to-earth losses are more prone to happen the week after big, emotional wins. Remember: He had called all the plays during Iowa's 12-game winning streak that was snapped, too.
But a trip to Madison against a top-five defense is a big-stage opportunity for Brian Ferentz to show that this offense can be built (or rebuilt) for Indianapolis.
And that's still the goal, isn't it? Get to Indy, and take your best shot. There's still a lot of season and important football ahead.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.