Iowa football mailbag: How serious was the Hawkeyes' rumored flu outbreak?
Following Iowa's 28-21 win over Nebraska, players walked into the postgame presser with tee shirts reading "2021 West Division champions: Iowa."
It's a matter of fact: Friday afternoon's win gave them at least a share of the Big Ten West title with Wisconsin.
"I love this shirt. It fits nice and tug," center Tyler Linderbaum said.
The Hawkeyes are West division champions in name, but one more thing has to happen for a trip to the Big Ten championship game next weekend: Minnesota defeating Wisconsin on Saturday. Head coach Kirk Ferentz wouldn't go as far as his players in saying he'll be a Minnesota fan, but he's hoping for "the right result."
Division standings aside, there's something to be said about Iowa's finish to the regular season. They clinched 10 wins in a season for only the 10th time in school history, defeated rival Nebraska for a seventh straight time and are 18-4 overall over the last two seasons.
What should fans make of this 10-2 Iowa Hawkeyes team? Ferentz said it best postgame: “We’re not the prettiest car in the lot but we get from Point A to Point B pretty well.”
A Big Ten championship game appearance is still possible and that's all Iowa hoped for entering today. And with that, the final postgame mailbag of the season:
Can we call this 'the flu game'?
A late storyline entering Friday's game was the flu bug within Iowa's program that sidelined a large portion of the team during the week. They didn't go without any players due to illness but Ferentz confirmed the team illness after the game.
"It was bad. It was bad," Ferentz said.
To best illustrate how bad the outbreak got, quarterbacks Alex Padilla and Spencer Petras both missed Tuesday practice, leaving just two other quarterbacks healthy. Most players are roommates so it quickly spread through the team, forcing non-sick players like running back Tyler Goodson to take refuge at his girlfriend's house to avoid its spread.
It seems like the worst of it came at the beginning of the week, and Iowa recovered in just enough time to have able bodies against Nebraska. But either way, they were not going to allow it to be an excuse.
"I didn't ask anyone how they're feeling," Ferentz said. "If they're out there, they're playing."
Who's starting QB? Alex Padilla or Spencer Petras?
Throughout the last few weeks Ferentz has stated that he believes they have two starting-quality quarterbacks. But it was not in the plans for both to play Friday. Alex Padilla and Spencer Petras both got snaps, though. In one half each, here's how both finished on the stat sheet:
Padilla: 6-for-14, 73 yards
Petras: 7-for-13 attempts, 102 yards and a rushing touchdown
Iowa's offense moved the ball fairly well in the first half but failed to score much given the opportunity. Ferentz said postgame that it felt like they were "spinning their tires a little bit" and were looking for a spark.
Statistically, there wasn't much difference between the two quarterbacks on Friday but I thought Petras ran the offense well in the second half.
Ferentz didn't name a starter moving forward. It seems like the coaching staff is riding the momentum of whoever has it at the moment.
And right now that's Petras.
How did the defense flip the switch?
Nebraska losing multi-year starting quarterback Adrian Martinez didn't seem to phase its offense for most of the game. The Cornhuskers scored touchdowns on three of their first five possessions and those drives went for 75, 75 and 94 yards.
Their last five possessions? Punt, fumble, safety, punt, interception.
What adjustments did Iowa make?
"We were playing a little too much in the middle of the field," defensive end Zach VanValkenburg said. "We tried to take away the outside because that's where they were burning us."
Iowa did that in the second half, limiting Nebraska's rush offense to just 18 yards. Nebraska's game plan centered around the run.
Starting slow on defense has been an issue over the last several weeks. This is the second straight week that the defense has surrendered a 75l-yard opening drive for a touchdown. But they've been able to make adjustments throughout the game.
The biggest adjustment? Penetration and pressure by the front seven. Both sacks and all five tackles for loss came in the second half.
"There's ebbs and flows in games," Ferentz said. "We gave up big plays along the way, if you do that on defense it's hard to expect good results. Just proud of our guys for knuckling down after that first drive in the second half and just started playing."
How valuable is special teams coach LeVar Woods?
Defensive coordinator Phil Parker is already a semifinalist for the Broyles Award, given to the nation's top assistant, but if Iowa could've had a second nominee without a doubt it's Levar Woods.
"He's worked at it," Ferentz said. "He carved out a nice NFL career being a reserve linebacker but also a special teams guy. When the NCAA created this extra (assistant coach) position it gave us an opening to put someone there who's passionate. I just think he's jumped in both feet and really works hard year round."
In the beginning of the season, it was Tory Taylor's booming punts that pinned opposing teams deep in their own territory and set Iowa up for easy scores. Now in the final two weeks, special teams is putting points on the board.
Iowa's special teams have scored 38 of the team's 54 total points over the last two weeks including eight field goals from kicker Caleb Shudak. The other scores, both touchdowns are a direct result of Woods' attention to detail:
- Charlie Jones' 100-yard kickoff against Illinois was a special-designed play by Woods based on something he had seen from Illinois' kickoff unit that had only allowed four returns all season to that point.
- Henry Marchese's blocked punt turned Kyler Fisher touchdown against Nebraska was another play specifically for that situation.
Without Woods and his dedication to that phase of the game, the Hawkeyes would not be wearing divsion champion shirts right now.
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.