By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – There was an incredible amount of positive energy and excitement coming from the Iowa football team’s post-game press conference on Saturday, and that was just from the media.
Iowa’s 48-3 beat-down against Middle Tennessee State at Kinnick Stadium was fun for everybody except for those associated with the visiting team from Murfreesboro, Tenn.
“They whooped us today,” Middle Tennessee State coach Rick Stockstill said of Iowa.
The 14th-ranked Hawkeyes dominated pretty much from start to finish and improved to 4-0 for the fifth time in 21 seasons under head coach Kirk Ferentz.
The outcome never seemed in doubt because it never was in doubt, even when the score was tied at zero, which lasted for about four minutes.
Saturday’s game was a mismatch in every sense. You name a position and Iowa was better and deeper than the Blue Raiders were at that position, and it wasn’t close, even with regard to Iowa’s depleted secondary.
Iowa and Middle Tennessee State could play 100 times and Iowa would win 100 times.
You could say the same about Miami of Ohio and Rutgers, so in that case, three of Iowa’s four victories this season have come against teams that are vastly inferior to the Hawkeyes and that had little to no chance of winning, especially at Kinnick Stadium.
The one exception is Iowa’s 18-17 victory at Iowa State on Sept. 14th in Ames. That game matched two teams with similar talent and expectations, and it ultimately could count as a quality win for Iowa, although, Iowa State losing at Baylor this past Saturday to fall to 2-2 certainly doesn’t help.
Three of the previous four Iowa teams that started 4-0 under Ferentz won no fewer than 10 games.
The exception came in 2006 when Iowa started 4-0, but then lost seven of its final nine games.
Iowa started 4-0 in 2003, 2009 and 2015 and finished those seasons with records of 10-3, 11-2 and 12-2, respectively.
So there is something to be said for being undefeated one-third of the way through the regular season.
But on the other hand, it’s still too early to anoint this Iowa team because it still hasn’t played enough quality opponents to know for sure about its potential.
This coming Saturday’s game at Michigan should tell us something about Iowa, because while the Wolverines aren’t elite under Jim Harbaugh, and haven’t been elite for a while, they still are capable of defeating the Hawkeyes, especially at the Big House.
Ferentz was asked after the Middle Tennessee State game how he feels going into the Michigan game based on the way things are with his team right now.
“I feel better today the way we played than I would have if we had gone out there and kind of stumbled around,” Ferentz said. “The biggest thing is our team has been working hard, and if we do that, we give ourselves a chance.
“The way I’m looking at it, we’ve got eight conference games in front of us. I’m guessing they are all going to be a challenge and they are all going to be tough. I know next week will be.”
That answer was vintage Ferentz in that he never gets too high or too low regardless of the circumstances. It’s always stay the course, live in the moment and respect the process with Ferentz.
His approach obviously works, considering everything Ferentz has accomplished at Iowa, including a 15-4 record over the last 19 games.
But it’s also not infallible, considering Iowa is just 10-9 in conference games since the start of the 2017 season.
Just when you think Iowa is ready to soar, or on the verge of unraveling, it does just the opposite.
Iowa looked close to invincible when it crushed Ohio State 55-24 at Kinnick Stadium in the ninth game of the 2017 season.
But that historic win was followed by back-to-losses at Wisconsin and against Purdue at home in which Iowa performed woefully, especially against the Badgers.
Iowa also blanked Maryland 23-0 last season at Kinnick Stadium to improve to 6-1, and it looked as if something special was brewing.
But then Iowa lost its next three games to Penn State, Purdue and Northwestern by a combined 12 points, and that erased any chance to be special.
It’s easy to get carried away when Iowa puts up arena-football-like statistics as it did against Middle Tennessee State, with 644 yards, including 351 on the ground.
Thats is the most yards under Kirk Ferentz, which covers 256 games dating back to 1999.
“That’s pretty exciting,” junior tackle Tristan Wirfs said of Iowa’s offensive output on Saturday. “We were on the sidelines toward the end of the game when some of the younger guys were in and we only needed like 11 more (yards) to go. So it was pretty exciting to watch them go over 600.”
It was also exciting for the fans, and for the media, because there is always lots of feel-good stories after a lopsided win.
Senior fullback Brady Ross finally scored his first rushing touchdown as a Hawkeye and that storyline led to another story during post-game interviews about Ross and junior running back Mekhi Sargent being roommates.
Junior receiver Brandon Smith also fed the energy by telling the media that he calls freshman running back Tyler Goodson the human joystick due to Goodson’s elusiveness on the field.
Kirk Ferentz even fed the hype by saying that Goodson is similar to former Iowa tight end Tony Moeaki in how nothing seems to faze Goodson as a true freshman.
Moeaki, when healthy, was one of Ferentz’s best players at Iowa, and Ferentz holds him in high regard.
So for Goodson to earn that comparison says something about the Georgia native.
Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley also completed 17 passes in Saturday’s game, including 11 that gained at least 10 yards.
“This game was very important for our offense,” said Brandon Smith, who caught both of Stanley’s two touchdown passes against Middle Tennessee State. “We executed at a high level.”
Iowa did execute at a high level against the Blue Raiders.
But how much of that was due to facing an over-matched opponent?
This current Iowa team will be defined over the next eight conference games.
Will this turn out to be one of those special double-digit-win seasons under Ferentz that seem to occur every four to six years?
Or will it be yet another seven-to-nine-win season that is now so common under Ferentz?
I still think the latter, and picked Iowa to finish 8-4 before the season. However, I was wrong about the Iowa State game, so that 8-4 will be 9-3 if Iowa does what I predicted from this point on by losing to Michigan, Wisconsin and Nebraska.
As inept as Nebraska looked against Ohio State on Saturday, that doesn’t mean the same thing will happen when the Cornhuskers face Iowa in the regular-season finale on Nov. 29 in Lincoln, Neb.
Injuries are the one big unknown factor that could derail any team like Iowa, which only has so much quality depth.
Take away Nate Stanley, and what does Iowa have in redshirt freshman backup Spencer Petras?
Nobody knows, even the Iowa coaches, who evaluate Petras every day in practice.
Stanley hasn’t missed a game since becoming the starter, so he’s durable. He also doesn’t run much, which limits the amount of hits that he takes.
This is not an attempt to rain on Iowa’s parade because a team can’t be better than 4-0 after four games, and can only play the opponents on its schedule.
But to suggest, or to assume, that Iowa’s dominance against three over-matched opponents is a sign that a special season is about to unfold seems a bit naïve and presumptuous.
Give it some time.