Iowa postgame mailbag: How did Hawkeyes turn it around after midseason slump?

Kennington Lloyd Smith III
Des Moines Register

IOWA CITY − Every position group on Iowa's football team has talking points and/or goals for the upcoming game. The defensive line unit had three leading up to the Wisconsin game, and sophomore Deontae Craig shared the last one with reporters after the game: "Slumpbuster."

Iowa had been in a near decade-long slump against its opponent on Saturday. Iowa had a 2-8 record in the last 10 games vs. the Badgers and four losses in the last five meetings. The Hawkeyes busted the slump with a 24-10 win over the Badgers on Saturday.

Another slump was the topic of conversation: How did Iowa turn things around after its midseason three-game losing streak?

Several weeks ago the Hawkeyes looked like a program at a crossroads with a 3-4 record, an offense with no answers and a head coach under a large, national microscope. Three wins and a few lucky breaks later (we'll get to that), Iowa almost controls its destiny in the Big Ten West. How did it happen? A few players gave their opinions.

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"Just continuing to work," safety Kaevon Merriweather said. "We didn't put our heads down and look at this season as a failure. We came in every single day from those losses and continued to to do the things that we did starting in the (off-season) and just fell back on what we are and who we are as a team."

Tight end Sam LaPorta noted that the losing streak was tough to handle but credited the veteran leadership on the team for keeping the group together and not allowing for rifts between them.

Ferentz elaborated further, stating that every team usually has players that are split into three groups. Fortunately for the Hawkeyes, they have a majority in one particular category.

"You have the guys at the top that know how to act and know how to be leaders," Ferentz said. "Then you've got guys in the middle trying to figure it out and then you've got some guys at the bottom that have no idea what's going on most of the time. But we have enough guys at the top that have been really strong.

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"I couldn't sign off on (a turnaround) three weeks ago, four weeks ago, but you bet on people and you bet on people that you've been around and see how they respond."

That philosophy netted positive results. Halfway through November, Iowa has a real chance at back-to-back Big Ten West titles. And that's where we pick up with this week's mailbag − 13 straight November wins and Iowa is suddenly a hot team.

Let's get into this week's questions:

Yes, Iowa won, but the offense ...

If I were to tell you before the game that Iowa's offense would gain 146 yards, 11 first downs and convert 32% of its third downs, you'd most likely predict a Wisconsin blowout win. That output was just enough to win, but by no means were Ferentz and players impressed with the performance.

"Unfortunately we were behind the sticks a lot," LaPorta said. "We weren't very good on first down today. We didn't run the ball effectively, a lot of long third downs today which are tough to convert. But we'll get that cleaned up. The defense played their butts off and we had great field position and when we did, we put points on the board. So it's a testament to our special teams unit and defense."

Unquestionably the biggest flaw on Iowa's offense was the offensive line, which allowed six sacks and 11 tackles for loss on Saturday. Ferentz said in the postgame that he was "kind of disappointed" with the play up front. It was a clear step back after two games of progress. It was a particularly rough day for right tackle Jack Plumb and guard Connor Colby, who was subbed out for Nick DeJong and Beau Stephens at a point. The problems on the line were compounded by Stephens and Plumb leaving the game with injuries.

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"I think Jack is OK. I think he is," Ferentz said. "And Stephens, he came out and couldn't go back in, so we'll see. We'll know Tuesday probably."

Iowa's offense was bad for 90-plus percent of Saturday's game, but the unit did execute situationally. Twice the special teams unit set up the offene on short fields and twice Iowa scored touchdowns. Then the offense went on an 11-play drive (that somehow gained just 27 yards) late in the fourth quarter for a field goal, forcing Wisconsin to burn its timeouts and chewing nearly five minutes of game clock.

It was a barely passing grade but Iowa's offense did just enough. They'll need to recalibrate before next Saturday at Minnesota.

What can be said about the effort by the special teams unit?

Special teams haven't been kind to Iowa in recent matchups with Wisconsin. Last season was the most recent example: a muffed punt that turned into Badger points in a blowout 27-7 win. There have even been moments this season when Ferentz said the special teams needed to impact the game against high-level opponents (Ohio State, Michigan) and it didn't come to fruition.

But special teams were a catalyst for Iowa's win on Saturday, and it happened in a variety of ways.

Sophomore Deontae Craig blocked a punt early in the game and set up Iowa for a score. And of course it was the result of special teams coordinator LeVar Woods' intense attention to detail.

Iowa defensive back Cooper DeJean (3) celebrates with linebacker Jack Campbell after returning an interception for a touchdown during Saturday's victory over Wisconsin.

"All week coach Woods has been pulling older clips of pro-style protection," Craig said. "The first couple of times on our rushes I saw (Wisconsin blockers) kind of stuck their head a little bit. So third time, coach gave me the freedom all week to take it up the field or duck it off inside and I saw an opening to reach out with a full block on that."

Then perhaps the most important stretch of the game came late in third quarter: with Iowa leading 14-10, punter Tory Taylor boomed a 58-yarder and Cooper DeJean forced the Wisconsin returner to not field the ball, allowing it to roll toward the goal line. DeJean tracked it down and tossed it back to Jamison Heinz to down it at the 1-yard line. Iowa's defense forced the punt shortly after, DeJean returned the Wisconsin punt 41 yards to Badgers' 18-yard line, and the offense punched in the game-sealing touchdown. Also: True freshman kicker Drew Stevens got in on the action, drilling a 44-yarder late in the game.

Iowa exercised some past demons on Saturday and once again flexed its muscle as one of the best units in the country.

Is it too early to start booking hotels in Indianapolis?

Shortly after Iowa and Wisconsin kicked off, Purdue defeated Illinois by a 28-21 score to give the Illini a third Big Ten loss; an Iowa win would create a three-way tie for first place with Illinois and Purdue. Iowa got the win and created a clear path for back-to-back division titles: one more Illinois loss and two more Iowa wins.

Illinois plays at Michigan next week, and judging by its play over the last two weeks, another loss seems imminent. Hawkeye fans and media can and will speculate and look ahead to the Big Ten championship game, but Iowa players did no such thing postgame.

"I think it's a total waste of time," quarterback Spencer Petras said. "We have to beat a good Minnesota team and a good Nebraska team coming up here. Obviously you play Big Ten football and the goal is to win your division and having that more in the picture than it was a few weeks ago is great. But I think the second that we set our sights at that, we're doing ourselves a disservice."

There is something to what Petras said − to assume that Iowa will just roll these next two weeks is a stretch. The offense has a lot of work to do, and Saturday's game at Minnesota is no gimme.

But to Petras' point, the fact that a West division title is even in the conversation is a testament to the turnaround. Enjoy the thoughts of Indy, because now they're very real.