116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — There are two possible stories if you’re a football team relying hard on non-starters.
One, your starters aren’t especially good. Or, in Iowa’s case, you just have a lot of good players.
“Second-teamer” was a technical label but not an apt description of so many Hawkeyes in their 30-7 win over Kent State Saturday at Kinnick Stadium. Iowa’s depth was, well, deep.
After the game, Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said so many players are contributing because so many players are inexperienced. It’s a fact, yes, but inexperience hasn’t been a noticeable problem through three double-digit victories.
For the second-straight week, non-starting linebacker Jestin Jacobs made a game-changing forced fumble. This time, he removed the ball from Golden Flash running back Bryan Bradford on a first down at the Iowa 1 midway through the third quarter, and the Hawkeyes up by just 16-7 in the third quarter.
Iowa cornerback Riley Moss collected the ball in the end zone. What would have been a 76-yard touchdown drive was instead 75 yards with nothing to show for it.
As was his strip of the ball from Iowa State’s Breece Hall deep in Cyclone territory last week, the play removed a lot of doubt about who would win the game.
“Jestin just has a knack for the ball, getting the ball out,” said Iowa linebacker Jack Campbell, who this season has shown a knack for doing all sorts of good things.
Terry Roberts wrecked an early Kent State punt return, then came off the sideline to break up a pass soon after he got some action at cornerback.
It’s hard to earn playing time at that position with Moss and Matt Hankins on the team, but Roberts looked pretty reliable himself back there. Bob Sanders, a former Hawkeye defensive back, would have been proud of his fellow Erie, Pa., native.
Defensive end Joe Evans had two quarterback sacks. It seems like Evans averages more sacks per snap than any Hawkeye in recent memory.
Defensive tackle Lukas Van Ness, a redshirt freshman, tag-teamed with vet Zach VanValkenburg to converge on Kent State quarterback Dustin Crum for the safety that gave Iowa a 2-0 lead following a botched center snap.
Van Ness would combine with VanValkenburg for another sack before getting one of his own. Iowa had seven sacks, a Van-full if you’ll forgive that groaner.
Even a third-teamer, redshirt freshman running back Gavin Williams, did substantial work when given the chance, with 31 yards on seven touches.
Were the subs the story of the day? No, but this was a big-picture game, the Hawkeyes trying to steel themselves for the Big Ten battles ahead by getting players experience, establishing depth, and shoring up some offensive areas.
Iowa got to enjoy, presumably, a week of being No. 5 in the nation and getting back-pats galore from fans and media near and far. Which is all great, but also not of much use as you go from Game 2 to Game 3 and beyond.
The elephant in the room was the Hawkeyes’ offense, a bleak 126th nationally in total offense with neither passing production or offensive line play that had anyone certain Iowa was ready to take that top-five designation and run with it. Or pass with it.
In the first half, the Kinnick crowd went from mumbling about Spencer Petras’ passing to pretty audible grumbling. Petras missed seeing open receivers, missed hitting some that he did locate, and didn’t seem to have chemistry with any receiver other than tight end Sam LaPorta.
Iowa didn’t get any first-half turnovers from its mad-dog defense, which makes its offense look even less dynamic.
But this was Kent State, not Indiana or Iowa State, and the Hawkeyes had a season-high 261 yards by halftime even if their meager 16-7 lead might not have allowed you to believe it.
Petras made key plays among the 20 on Iowa’s final drive of the half, which covered 95 yards and gave it a two-score advantage. He completed 17 of his last 22 passes in the game, didn’t turn the ball over, and Iowa had a 418-yard day that was solid.
Solid isn’t spectacular. Solid works fine when your defense has allowed four touchdowns over three games. Spectacular may never come. Solid is a good-enough goal for this team at this time. You’d take solid from here to January, right?
Petras said he thought the Hawkeyes ran and threw the ball well, and the 212 yards passing and 206 rushing would support his opinion.
“I thought I made good decisions all day,” Petras said. He passed 36 times without an interception Saturday, and hasn’t thrown a pick in his last five games, covering 137 passes. In a stat that matters more, Iowa is 9-0 in his last nine starts.
Is Iowa a good passing team, stylistically? Uh uh. Is it a good-enough passing team to stack wins once Big Ten play resumes? The jury still is out.
But if the quarterback or his teammates or his coaches are as worried about it as the outer Hawkeye world seems to be, they’re as skilled in deception as both Penn and Teller.
“I think he did a great job,” said Iowa wide receiver Tyrone Tracy, who had five catches and was mysteriously denied another by a replay official. who must have been dancing to music no one else could hear.
“There were some times when the offense was down,” Tracy said. “I messed up in the beginning. I went offsides. We had fumbles.
“(Petras) is a great leader. As you see on the field, he does produce and in multiple ways. He’s just a great leader overall.”
Still, the question hovered over Kinnick like an uninvited drone. Can this be a great team if its offense is as balky as it was at times in the first half Saturday?
Petras averaged 5.8 yards per pass attempt. Most of the completions were short stuff. You can’t live off that through eight more Big Ten games, can you? It’s got to get somewhat better for a big season, doesn’t it?
Hey, you’ve got to have some angst. If this stuff came too easily, it wouldn’t be Iowa.
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