IOWA CITY, Iowa – Since the spring, members of the Iowa football team have made statements that suggests they have something special brewing.
They want us to believe that the current Iowa team is more focused, more determined and more unified than the 2014 Hawkeyes, who unraveled down the stretch to finish 7-6.
They want us to believe with C.J. Beathard playing quarterback and LeShun Daniels and Jordan Canzeri sharing the load at running back that Iowa will be more explosive this season.
And they want us to believe with all the changes that have been implemented since the end of last season that the program is headed back in the right direction under veteran head coach Kirk Ferentz.
It’s easier to start believing all of that now after what happened Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.
A season opener against FCS power Illinois State, which I thought would be competitive and not decided until late in the fourth quarter, quickly turned into a mismatch as the Hawkeyes rolled to a 31-14 victory.
It was easy to tell almost from the first snap that Iowa was from a power five conference and that Illinois State was in over its FCS head.
“That’s what we all expected going into this game,” said senior defensive end Drew Ott, who had two of Iowa’s five sacks. “I thought we had a good game plan and the coaches did a good job and we executed fairly well.”
This past offseason was a grind for everybody who follows the Iowa football team. At times, it felt like Saturday’s season opener never would get here.
We kept hearing the players say all the right things, including that they have a stronger sense of urgency compared to last season. But until Saturday, it was just talk with nothing to back it up.
“We talked in January about it’s a new season, a new year, and talked to them last night, this is the first chapter in that story,” said Ferentz, whose record improved to 14-3 in season openers with the Hawkeyes. “I felt we had a really good camp, productive camp, preseason camp. I felt our first week of game preparation went really well.
“The focus was there every day at practice, and to me, my guess is that time away from the building, the guys did a good job, as well. And most importantly, they were ready to play today.”
Now the question is, will Ott and his cohorts be ready to play against Iowa State next Saturday in Ames? I finished this column about an hour before the Cyclones were scheduled to face Northern Iowa in Ames.
I figured why wait for the outcome of that game because it won’t matter. The Cyclones could lose to Northern Iowa by three touchdowns, but I’d still expect them to rise to the occasion against Iowa because they usually do.
“We don’t want to get too excited,” Ott said. “We have to stay focused. We have a whole lot of games to play.”
Probably the most impressive thing about Saturday’s victory besides Iowa’s relentless pressure on defense was its balance on offense. It’s hard for any team to drive 99 yards for a touchdown, as Iowa did on Saturday, without being balanced.
It was Iowa’s first 99-yard scoring drive since 2002 against Miami (Ohio).
“That’s tough to do against anybody,” Beathard said.
Junior LeShun Daniels rushed for a career-high 123 yards, while Beathard passed for 211 yards and one touchdown. Iowa finished with 431 yards, including 211 rushing yards.
It was the kind of balance that would’ve made the Flying Wallendas stand up and cheer.
Beathard also wasn’t sacked during Saturday’s game. He was pressured a few times and hit in the pocket. But he usually had plenty of time to survey the field and look for open receivers.
So that’s at least one indication that Iowa’s new starting tackles – sophomores Boone Myers and Ike Boettger – performed well on Saturday.
“I did all right,” said Boettger, who started at right tackle. “I think we did great as a unit. It was little shaky at the start. But we got through that and then I think we got rolling a little bit.”
Ferentz was quick to say afterwards that it was just one game. But that’s what he is expected to say as the head coach.
He’s right, though, because it was just one game against an FCS opponent that Iowa should defeat 99 out of 100 times.
You also probably shouldn’t read too much into Saturday’s victory because remember what happened in the 2009 season opener? The same Iowa team that had to block two field-goal attempts in the final seconds to secure a 17-16 victory over Northern Iowa at Kinnick State went on to finish 11-2 overall that season.
One game doesn’t define a team, good or bad.
One game also isn’t enough to tell whether Ferentz has changed his approach, but he raised a few eyebrows and drew cheers from the fans after a fake field-goal attempt had failed in the second quarter. It didn’t matter to fans that Iowa kicker Marshall Koehn was tackled two yards short of a first down at the Illinois State 22-yard line. They were just thrilled to see Ferentz abandon his conservative approach for a change.
Ferentz also showed his wild side late in the second quarter when he chose to go for more points instead of sitting on a 14-0 lead. Iowa had just blocked a field goal and taken possession at its won 33 yard line with 37 seconds left before halftime. Beathard then completed a 51-yard screen pass to Canzeri on first down. That set the stage for Koehn, who made a 40-yard field goal on the final play of the first half.
The challenge now is to flush what happened against Illinois State by Sunday. It felt like it took forever for Saturday’s season opener to finally get here, but next Saturday’s game in Ames will be here in a hurry.
And my guess is the Cyclones will be ready as usual.