By Pat Harty
With exception maybe to Rutgers, there wasn’t a Big Ten football team that needed to win its season opener more than Iowa did on Saturday.
You could make a case for Nebraska, but most Cornhusker fans still seem convinced that Scott Frost is the savior and will eventually return the program to dominance.
Iowa and Rutgers, on the other hand, were desperate for a win on Saturday, but for vastly different reasons.
Rutgers entered Saturday’s game at Michigan State carrying the burden and embarrassment of a 21-game conference losing streak, while Iowa entered its game at Purdue carrying the shame and embarrassment of a tumultuous offseason in which multiple former black players accused the program of having racial disparities.
For Rutgers, it was mission accomplished, but for Iowa, it was more pain, frustration and anger.
Rutgers held on to defeat the Spartans 38-27 to mark a successful return for Greg Schiano as head coach, while Iowa blew a fourth-quarter lead and fell 24-20 at a mostly empty Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette, Ind.
Iowa was so close to getting a victory that would’ve mattered for so many reasons, on and off the field, but there is no satisfaction with being close in football.
Iowa lost to a depleted Purdue squad that was without head coach Jeff Brohm, after he tested positive for COVID-19, and without several assistant coaches and star receiver and return specialist Rondale Moore.
The Boilermakers were vulnerable, and didn’t have their usual fan support, and yet, they still found a way to win a game in which they allowed 460 total yards.
Or maybe, it’s more accurate to say that Iowa found a way to lose, and did so by committing two costly turnovers and having 10 penalties despite the stadium being mostly empty.
“It’s hard to say,” sophomore quarterback Spencer Petras said when asked to explain why there were so many penalties without many fans in the stands. “It’s discipline and attention to detail. We kind of pride ourselves on being brilliant with the basics, and I don’t think we were that today.
“Yeah, self-inflicted wounds are never easy. It’s tough. But it’s something we can correct, for sure. It’s good, we’ll be able to watch it on tape and see what we did wrong and come back this week and try to improve.”
Petras was making his starting debut for Iowa on Saturday, and it showed at times, especially early in the game.
He improved as the game progressed, and showed off his tremendous arm strength on several nifty throws while passing for a respectable 265 yards.
However, it was a screen pass on Iowa’s final offensive series in which Petras over threw starting running back Tyler Goodson that will be the lasting image from Petras’ performance. There was a line of blockers ready to pave the way for Goodson to make a play, but it just didn’t happen.
Goodson finished with 77 rushing yards and 59 receiving yards on five catches, but Iowa fans are left to wonder what he might have accomplished with a sixth catch on the screen pass.
Some fans also might wonder why Goodson didn’t have a carry or a catch in the fourth quarter.
Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz called some nice plays on Saturday, but to not use Goodson in the fourth quarter is almost inexcusable, or highly suspect at best.
Goodson was targeted on the screen pass on Iowa’s final offensive series, but that was just one play and it failed.
Senior running back Mekhi Sargent was also having a solid all-around game until he fumbled late in the fourth quarter. He finished with 71 rushing yards on 11 carries and averaged 6.5 yards per attempt.
Sargent scored Iowa’s second touchdown on a 1-yard run in the second quarter. But one of the lasting images from Saturday’s game, along with the blown screen pass, will be Sargent’s fumble that gave Purdue life.
Iowa lost despite rushing for 195 yards and averaging 5.4 yards per attempt. This marks just the fifth time in the last 50 games that Iowa has lost when it rushed for at least 100 yards.
Iowa lost despite leading 20-14 in the fourth quarter.
Iowa lost despite having more total yards, more rushing yards and almost as many passing yards as Purdue.
However, the key statistic in the game could be that Purdue rushed for 100 yards in the second half after being held to just four yards in the first half. Junior Zander Horvath finished with 121 rushing yards and seemed to get stronger as the game progressed
“That impacted the game,” said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. “And that’s something – we play better defense when we don’t let people run like that. I thought (Horvath) impacted the game in the second half. It’s something we’ll have to correct. You can take our stats. The bottom line in football is how many points you score, how many points they score. So, we came up four short.”
Purdue’s success on the ground in the second half, coupled with the greatness of receiver David Bell, was just too much for a sloppy Iowa team to overcome.
Bell caught 13 passes for the second game in a row against Iowa, and he scored all three of Purdue’s touchdowns.
There was an obvious breakdown in communication with the Iowa defense on Bell’s game-winning grab late in the fourth quarter because he was wide open.
Kirk Ferentz then said as much afterwards.
It would be easy to blame the mistakes on the extended layoff due to COVID-19, but Purdue also struggled through the same layoff and was missing nearly half of its coaching staff and one of its best players.
One of the most encouraging things to come from Saturday’s loss, besides the punting of Australia native Tory Taylor, was the amount of veteran leadership on display.
It was subtle things such as fifth-year senior left tackle Alaric Jackson often being the first player to congratulate a teammate on offense for making a play. Jackson after numerous plays would race downfield to high-five or fist-pump with a teammate.
To have one of your more accomplished veteran players show that level of enthusiasm and team-first mentality is a good sign for a program that is being scrutinized, criticized and analyzed in the wake of having its culture placed under a microscope.
Junior running back Ivory Kelly-Martin also seemed focused on being a vocal leader during Saturday’s game, and that says a lot about his character.
Iowa’s third-team running back, who was the starter at the beginning of the 2018 season, could’ve easily transferred after he was demoted. But Kelly-Martin is determined to finish what he started at Iowa and he finished with 29 rushing yards on just four carries.
Iowa’s three-headed attack at running back looks promising, but it’s easy to overlook what they accomplished after a loss in which one of the running backs had a costly fumble.
“We’ve got total confidence in all three of the guys,” Kirk Ferentz said. “Ivory didn’t play quite as much, maybe. All of those guys, Tyler is a good football player, I thought Mekhi was playing great, quite frankly, in his quiet way. But he was really being productive, running strong, running tough. It’s a shame, because he does a good job with that ball, he’s not a sloppy player by any stretch.
“So, we plan on playing all three of those guys during the course of the year.”
Sophomore tight end Sam LaPorta picked up on Saturday where he left off last season by leading Iowa with 71 receiving yards on five catches. It’s still early, but LaPorta is showing signs of being Iowa’s next great tight end.
Probably the most troubling statistic from Saturday’s loss, besides the turnovers and penalties, is that senior Ihmir Smith-Marsette was held to no catches for the first time in 15 games.
That has to change in a hurry because Smith-Marsette is too talented, and too emotional in a good way, to not be a factor.
Iowa will return home next Saturday to face Northwestern, which pounded Maryland on Saturday, followed by another home game against Michigan State a week later.
To call both games must-wins at this stage might sound like an alarmist, but so be it.
If Iowa hopes to accomplish anything special and show that the program is moving in the right direction in the wake of a brutal offseason, then it has to beat Northwestern and Michigan State at home, even without fans.
It has to eliminate the penalties, protect the football and perform better against he run.
Because you can be certain that some outsiders are assuming that Iowa is on the verge of collapse under the 65-year old Kirk Ferentz because of what happened during the offseason.
And that’s why a victory on Saturday would have felt so good and would have sent a strong message.
It wouldn’t have fixed all of Iowa’s problems. But it would have provided an emotional spark for a group of players and coaches whose emotions have been tested to the limit.