They’ve outgained all three of their opponents this season, they owned a halftime lead in all three games, and surrendered only one second-half touchdown in each. So the fact that the Iowa Hawkeyes find themselves with two losses already has longtime coach Kirk Ferentz ruefully acknowledging the football wisdom that his young team absorbed during their shocking start.
“You don’t get them back. You don’t get them back,” Ferentz lamented Tuesday. “That’s the lesson everybody learns fast.”
The Gophers, who face Iowa in TCF Bank Stadium on Friday night, have mastered that concept, too. Both teams had reason to believe that a division championship was within reach during this strange, short season, but both opened the season with a pair of largely self-inflicted losses, with Iowa falling to Purdue and Northwestern. Like the Gophers, the Hawkeyes found reassurance in a blowout victory last Saturday, a 49-7 whipping of Michigan State that warded off the second 0-3 start in Ferentz’s 22-season career and left the impression they are far better than their 1-2 record.
“It wasn’t perfect. We had some flaws. But at least we acted like a football team for 60 straight minutes, start to finish,” a relieved Ferentz said of a team that went 10-3 last season and routed USC 49-24 in the Holiday Bowl. “We just conducted ourselves like a winning team. And if you do that, then you might have a chance to win.”
They always seem to have a chance to win against Minnesota, at least under Ferentz, who is 15-6 against the Gophers. Iowa has claimed the Floyd of Rosedale trophy in each of the past five seasons — the Hawkeyes have never won six in a row in the rivalry’s 112-game history — and last year spoiled Minnesota’s 9-0 start with a 23-19 upset in Iowa City.
That game, in which Iowa scored touchdowns on its first three possessions and then spent the rest of the day praying it was enough, has served as a frustrating template for the Hawkeyes this year. Iowa has scored 89 points this season, but only 17 of them after halftime, 14 of those against the hapless Spartans. They start well each week, but “we’ve got to finish,” defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon said. “It’s basically the same thing every week.”
Actually, the defense has lived up to its billing, mostly. The Hawkeyes have allowed only 102 yards per game on the ground, fewest in the Big Ten, though Purdue’s Zander Horvath racked up 129 yards in the season opener. They also rank in the league’s top three in yards allowed, points allowed and passing yards allowed.
And special teams, historically an Iowa strength, are among the Big Ten’s best again, ranking in the top three in kickoff returns and punt returns while showing off their new Australian punter. Tory Taylor, who had never played American football until last month, has boomed kicks an average of 46.0 yards, tops in the league.
So what’s the problem? Mostly, it’s been untimely turnovers. The Hawkeyes lost two fumbles in Purdue territory in the opener, and their new starting quarterback, sophomore Spencer Petras, threw three second-half interceptions against Northwestern, two of them bouncing off the hands of receivers.
Petras is the wild card in an offense that, operating behind the usual bruising Hawkeyes offensive line, features well-established weapons such as tailback Tyler Goodson, who picked up 94 yards against the Gophers last year, and receivers Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Brandon Smith.
Petras and Smith hooked up on a pair of near-identical touchdown passes the past two weeks, the first two scores of Petras’ career.
“Throughout Brandon’s career here, he’s been an outstanding, reliable receiver,” Petras said of the senior receiver, who in each case yanked the pass away from a defender in the end zone.
“When the ball’s in the air, a 50-50 ball, I have all the confidence in him making the play.”