Iowa postgame mailbag: Is there such a thing as a disappointing 7-2 football team?
Four words from Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz best described his team's feelings walking out of Evanston with a 17-12 win over Northwestern.
"We needed a win," Ferentz said.
A game that seemed to be well in hand for Iowa throughout needed a late-game interception by safety Dane Belton to seal it and propel the Hawkeyes to a 4-2 record in Big Ten play. It wasn't pretty but Iowa got the win and will be playing relevant football in November this season.
There were several standouts in this game, but Tyler Goodson's 141 rushing yards and Belton's two interceptions (three total by the defense) represent two good signs for Iowa: an appearance by Iowa's rush offense and the return of the ball-hawking secondary.
Northwestern entered the game last in the Big Ten in rush defense and first in fewest giveaways. The Hawkeyes exploited both, rushing for 4.9 yards per carry and forcing nearly as many turnovers on Saturday (3) as Northwestern had given up on the season (4).
More:Iowa report card: Hawkeyes snag a win, but concerns remain after Northwestern rally
Iowa is firmly in the race for the Big Ten West title. There's plenty to comment on after Saturday's performance so let's get into it in this week's postgame mailbag:
What’s the chance that Alex Padilla is the starting QB the rest of the year?
Backup quarterback Alex Padilla's performance claims the top spot in storylines out of Northwestern. The Greenwood Village, Colorado, native subbed in on the fourth series of the game and never looked back, completing 18-of-28 passes for 172 yards.
Before I give my take, here's what Kirk Ferentz said:
“We’ll look at the film, see what we think,” Ferentz said. “I know this, Spencer (Petras) has led us to a lot of victories. And tonight, Alex did. To me that’s a good situation.
“I’m really proud of Alex for what he did. I’m really proud of the things Spencer has done over the last two years as well. We’ll just take it a day at a time, but hopefully it’s — pardon the pun — a healthy situation for us.”
In my opinion it's best for now that we examine the starting quarterback on a week-by-week basis. And next week I'm expecting to see Padilla start.
More:Leistikow's thoughts: Alex Padilla provides spark Iowa's offense needed in 17-12 win vs. Northwestern
The biggest reason for Petras' substitution out of the game as a lack of "zip" on the ball, according to Ferentz. Judging by what I saw in pregame warmups and the first few series, it'll take longer than a week for that zip to return. From there, I think it'll become more of a performance-based conversation than health-based. But if Padilla looks strong again in a win against Minnesota, then seeing him as the permanent starter seems like more of a possibility.
Which position group impressed you most?
Defensive lineman Noah Shannon was critical of his group after the Wisconsin loss. He said they "shot themselves short" and the 166 rushing yards surrendered "wasn't like them."
Saturday saw a return of the position group that was one of the positive surprises early in the season. Shannon set the tone with a first-quarter sack, Iowa's first by a defensive lineman since October 9 against Penn State. On the day, the line recorded three sacks, six quarterback hits and seven quarterback hurries.
The defensive line's inability to create havoc on the line of scrimmage contributed greatly to their two previous losses. On Saturday, the deep rotation of players made life difficult for Northwestern through the air and on the ground. They finished the game with only 93 yards rushing on three yards per carry.
More good news for the defensive line: Deontae Craig returned to action after missing a a few weeks and recorded one of the tackles for loss. Iowa's defensive line is back at full strength for the final stretch of the season.
What are the biggest improvements Iowa needs to make right now?
Iowa did some good things offensively and defensively Saturday but there's always an area to improve. I'll do one for offense and one for defense.
There's no question that Alex Padilla added an immediate spark to the Hawkeyes offense. His first two drives went as followed: 15 plays, 141 yards (9.4 yards per play) and two touchdowns.
But what happened after that shows what Iowa's next step is on that side of the ball: (not counting the three quarterback kneels to end the game) 42 plays, 214 yards (5.1 yards per play) and only three more points. The yardage per play is strong but Iowa is still searching for more consistency.
One way to do that is by staying on the field. The difference in Iowa's two touchdown drives to every other drive is they didn't see a third-down once. When they did see third downs they converted only 2-of-14 attempts. The Hawkeyes need much more from that area of the game if they're to make a run at Indianapolis.
More:Here's what Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz had to say about Alex Padilla and the QB battle
Defensively the Hawkeyes gave an improved effort but one negative area carried over from last week: missed tackles.
One play in particular illustrates this: on a 4th & 1 run play, both Jack Campbell and Zach VanValkenburg missed tackles in the backfield that would've given Iowa's offense the ball at midfield. Instead, Northwestern converted and later punted but pinned Iowa's offense inside its own 20-yard line.
Not a glaring weakness but definitely something that could bite Iowa later. I expect a rigorous tackling circuit this week.
I'm seeing a lot of disappointed fans despite a 7-2 team record. What should we make of Iowa's season?
Iowa won the game but its sluggish finish didn't sit well with a lot of fans online. Here's a few three-word headlines I pulled from Twitter: "Feels like loss," "Not enough points," "Barely Good Enough," among others.
This is an interesting question because I believe that in the preseason, most fans would've signed up for a 7-2 Iowa team with a chance at the Big Ten West title at this point in the year. To me, the disappointment isn't with what their record is but how Iowa got here. The hallmark of many Kirk Ferentz teams is getting stronger over the course of the season and playing its best this time of year. This year's team is kind of the opposite: really strong at the beginning of the year and wavering after that.
And even at the beginning of the year, wins over Kent State and Colorado State left fans wanting to see more.
More:Iowa football director of recruiting Tyler Barnes discusses Hawkeyes' outlook ahead of signing day
No question it's disappointing as a fan to see your team quickly plunge from the No. 2 team in the country to needing help to reach the conference title game. But here's something to keep in perspective: If Iowa wins out, that'll be 10 regular-season wins, the first time since 2015 and just the seventh team under Ferentz to win 10 games.
Yes, the offense needs a lot of work. Yes, Iowa beat Colorado State by 10, Northwestern by five and lost badly to Purdue as a heavy favorite in each of those games. Yes, the college football playoff talk vanished quickly. But winning is better than losing and Iowa's done its share of winning this year.
Look no further than Iowa's rival, the Nebraska Cornhuskers, who clinched their fifth consecutive losing season and will miss a bowl game again. Iowa has flaws but I suggest that fans try to enjoy the fact that their team has meaningful games ahead in November.
Kennington Lloyd Smith III covers Iowa Hawkeyes football and men's basketball for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.