Harty: Need more proof, but starting to believe Iowa FB team’s vibe
IOWA CITY, Iowa – I can’t remember when being wrong felt so good.
The Iowa football team proved me wrong on Saturday by whipping Iowa State in the second half and leaving Ames with a 31-17 victory on Saturday.
It was only Iowa’s second victory in its last five games against the Cyclones.
But it couldn’t have come at a better time for the Iowa program and for those still devastated from a week filled with sadness and tragedy.
The Iowa players probably didn’t know Tyler Sash very well, or at all, since he played defensive back for the Hawkeyes from 2008-10.
But they learned about him this past week under horrible circumstances, with Sash having died on Tuesday at the age of 27 in his hometown of Oskaloosa.
The Iowa players honored Sash by replacing one of the tiger hawk logos on each helmet with his Iowa jersey No. 9.
They honored him even more, though, with their refuse-to-lose attitude against a rival that has a knack of playing that way against them. The entire Hawkeye community came together in the face of tragedy, and it’s probably fair to say the Iowa football team rallied behind that support.
“I’m not surprised by it and I think that’s just a trademark of our program, the people that have come through our program, more importantly,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said of the support after Saturday’s victory. “It’s a tough thing to deal with for anybody.
“And like I’ve said since we learned about this, our thoughts and all of our concerns were for the family. That’s just an unbelievable thing to experience. There aren’t explanations for things like this.”
There was a simple explanation for why Iowa prevailed against Iowa State. The Hawkeyes made more plays at critical times.
“If we’re going to be competitive in November the way we want to be, you’ve got to find a way to win games like this,” Ferentz said. “And there was nothing easy certainly about today’s ball game.”
I was reluctant at first, but now I’m willing to admit that the current Iowa team looks different and has a different vibe than last season. The players have insisted that the current team is closer than the 2014 Hawkeyes and has more sense of urgency to win.
It’s hard to argue with that right now.
But it’s also awkward highlighting that angle because to me it comes at the expense of the seniors on last season’s team, and even more so at the expense of former Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock whether that is the intention or not.
The current Iowa team has inspired hope by winning its first two games, but that’s all it has done at this early stage.
Ferentz would be the first to say settle down because it’s only two games. We’re happy and excited about defeating two quality opponents, including one in a very hostile environment, but we’re still very much a work in progress and haven’t really proved that much.
Ferentz wouldn’t say it in those exact words, but that will be his message on Tuesday when he meets with the media. He will praise his team for responding to difficult circumstances and for bringing one of the traveling trophies back to Iowa City after losing all four trophy games last season.
But Ferentz’s main message will be to forge ahead, as it should be.
“We’re just looking forward, Ferentz said. “We made our mind up in January that we’re going worry about 2015. Certainly, you learn from the past. One thing we had a hard time doing last year was maybe winning on the road in a tough circumstance where it was going against us a little bit.
“The thing I’m proud of today is the guys hung together, they fought hard and they closed the game out. And that’s easier said than done. It’s something you have to experience. It’s a positive step for us certainly. And hopefully, it will serve us well as we move forward here.”
Some of the post-game chatter I’ve seen is fans asking each other if they’re back on board with Ferentz and if they feel the program is no longer in crisis mode.
My reaction to Saturday’s victory, and to Iowa being 2-0, is that I feel better than I did two weeks ago, but I wasn’t in meltdown mode two weeks ago. I’ve never felt that Ferentz should be fired or that the program was on the verge of unraveling.
The Iowa program was mired in mediocrity, but the last two weeks have helped to loosen that grip.
I won’t get carried away with optimism just like I didn’t get carried away with pessimism.
So often these days it seems we’re quick to label a key victory as a program changer or as proof that something special is brewing.
And maybe that is happening. The current Iowa team might be special, but only time and its performance will tell. We need more time to know for sure.
Rudock won four of his first five games as Iowa’s starting quarterback in 2013, including a 27-21 victory at Iowa State. But that stretch proved to be one of his highpoints as a Hawkeye.
I’m not suggesting the same thing that happened to Rudock will happen to Beathard. Instead, I’m reminding you that the future is always uncertain because it hasn’t happened yet.
Luck also will play a factor because it always does with any team.
The same with injuries. Ferentz said he wasn’t sure about the status of senior defensive end Drew Ott or junior running back LeShun Daniels after they both were injured against Iowa State, an arm injury and an ankle injury, respectively. It would be a huge blow if either missed an extended period of time.
We should know a lot more about attendance when Iowa faces Pittsburgh in a rare night game at Kinnick Stadum on Saturday.
Attendance, or the lack of it, was one of the storylines for the season opener against Illinois State because the game’s attendance of 59,450 was the smallest at Kinnick Stadium since 2003.
That wasn’t reason to panic, though, because all that stood in the way of Kinnick Stadium probably being close to full again for the Pittsburgh game were victories over Illinois State and Iowa State.
So in that case, mission accomplished.
Even with all the emotion surrounding the Iowa State victory, it still came down to the Hawkeyes making more plays at critical times than the Cyclones for a change.
It might be just a coincidence that the victory came in the same week that two former Hawkeye greats died – former Iowa basketball star Roy Marble died of a cancer on Friday at the age of 48 – or maybe not. Iowa State usually seems to have an emotional edge against Iowa, but that wasn’t the case on Saturday.
For Iowa, emotion led to execution when it mattered the most in the decisive second half.
Most of the focus has been on the Iowa offense, particularly new starting quarterback C.J. Beathard, and deservedly so because his performance will go a long way in determining Iowa’s success this season.
And so far, so good.
Beathard hasn’t forced anything, which was my biggest concern about him taking over for Rudock. Beathard has been poised and precise, which is exactly what a quarterback should be.
He hasn’t throw a lot downfield, but we know he can. And so does Iowa State after Beathard burned the Cyclones with a 48-yard pass completion to Matt VandeBerg in the fourth quarter. Iowa was faced with a 3rd-and-21 at its own seven yard line when Beathard connected with VandeBerg near midfield.
The pass and the catch were things of beauty, something we rarely saw with Rudock playing quarterback.
Beathard also put the ball exactly where it had to be on touchdown passes to Tevaun Smith in the second quarter on Saturday and to Riley McCarron in the fourth quarter.
Combine that with two runs of 44 and 57 yards that Beathard had against the Cyclones and you have a solid, game-changing performance. You have a quarterback who at least for two games has lived up to the enormous hype.
Equally as impressive, but in a more subtle way has been the performance of junior defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson.
Much of the focus has been on Iowa having to replace both of its starting tackles on offense from last season, including 2014 Outland Trophy winner Brandon Scherff at left tackle.
But that also was the case on defense where Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat had to be replaced.
Johnson and fellow defensive tackle starter Nathan Bazata have met the challenge so far, especially Johnson, who came to Iowa from the Chicago area as a 4-star recruit with a bunch of power five offers. He had five tackles against Iowa State, including one for loss and one sack.
“This is two straight weeks,” Ferentz said of Johnson performing well. “As I mentioned last week, everybody has talked about our offensive tackles, but I’ve been worried about those defensive tackles, too.
“And Jaleel seems like he’s doing a real good job. I’m anxious to see the film. But he’s worked hard in practice, kind of reflective of our football team.”
Another positive from Saturday was the performance of redshirt freshman defensive end Parker Hesse, who was pressed into action after Ott injured his arm in the first quarter and didn’t return. Hesse, a former high school quarterback, certainly didn’t pick up where Ott left off as an all-Big Ten performer. But Hesse wasn’t a liability, either. He held his ground and was part of an Iowa defense that held Iowa State to just 66 yards in the second half.
Speaking of holding his ground, redshirt freshman defensive back Josh Jackson was matched against Iowa State star receiver Allen Lazard for parts of Saturday’s game and he did okay. Not bad for a kid who was playing receiver just a few week ago.
Senior punter Dillon Kidd also deserves praise for averaging an impressive 47.4 yards on five punts on Saturday. Two of his punts were downed inside the Iowa State 20-yard line.
Not everybody can be a star like Beathard, but stars can’t do it alone, either. Football is considered by many to be the ultimate team sport. It takes a large group of people working together to make enough plays in order to win.
The Iowa players won together on Saturday and they left the field together with the Cy-Hawk Trophy headed back to Iowa City.
“That’s awesome. There is nothing like it, especially a rivalry game like this is just big,” said senior tight end Henry Kreiger Coble. “And we were all really excited. But (Iowa State) played a heck of a game and that was the challenge we expected. They came out and played their butts off.
“We’re definitely really proud of our guys for the way that we played.”
They should be proud. But that shouldn’t take away from their hunger.