WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — All the areas you heard Iowa players cite as problems Saturday were supposed to be Hawkeye strong suits.
“It comes down to physicality, communication, fundamentals,” senior linebacker Nick Niemann said. “All of the above.”
Hawkeye running back Tyler Goodson, who fumbled the ball away in the red zone in the first quarter, mentioned ball security or the lack thereof.
Iowa’s defense? “We weren’t real focused on the defensive side,” said senior cornerback Matt Hankins.
That’s a lot to unpack from the long-awaited Game 1, which turned out to be a 24-20 loss at Purdue in Ross-Ade Stadium that certainly didn’t need to be a defeat.
Ball security? Goodson’s fumble was eclipsed in importance by Mekhi Sargent’s in the fourth quarter when the Hawkeyes were in Purdue territory and could have salted things away with a touchdown drive.
Iowa fumbled nine times over 13 games last year. According to the team’s media guide, it was the fewest number of fumbles in a season since at least 1937. Only five of the nine were lost. That was security.
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Focus? It was a Herky-jerky offseason to be sure, especially in Iowa City. However, both teams had the same amount of time to get their minds right, and Purdue was the one playing without its head coach present because Jeff Brohm tested positive for COVID-19 last Sunday.
Physicality? The program built on work in the weight room, on breaking a rock and opposing spirits? Well, a big reason the Boilermakers won the game was the way junior running back Zander Horvath and his teammates pounded away in the fourth quarter.
Yes, sensational sophomore receiver David Bell tormented the Hawkeyes with 13 catches, three for touchdowns. After earning the quarterback job just in the days leading up to the game, former walk-on Aidan O’Connell did an admirable job.
Horvath, though, was the game-changer. He made like a Wisconsin Badger back and dragged Hawkeye defenders with him on a lot of his rushes.
It almost made you wonder if there had been some sort of upheaval in Iowa’s strength and conditioning operation in the offseason. Oh, wait ...
No, this wasn’t good. You rush for 195 yards and outgain the foe by 74 total yards, you have to win. You have a lead and the ball in the opponent’s territory with six minutes left, you have to win.
You play an ordinary team by Big Ten standards that is minus one head coach and one star wide receiver (Rondale Moore), you have to win.
“It just came down to a lack of focus, not being ready,” Hankins said.
What the what?
But Hankins’ answer was verified with one bright red flag produced by 10 yellow ones. That’s Iowa’s 10 penalties for 100 yards. No one was calling it a jobbing from the officials, either. It was a potpourri of penalties from a plethora of players, and they were positively punishing.
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Those words start with ‘P,’ and that rhymes with ‘T,” and that stands for “Trouble.” Which the Hawkeyes will have in River City if they don’t immediately take a scrub brush to it.
“It’s discipline, attention to extra detail,” said quarterback Spencer Petras. “We kind of pride ourselves on being brilliant at basics, and I don’t think we were that today.”
Petras’ first start wasn’t great, but was further from being bad than one of his long throws. He didn’t hit on any bombs Saturday, but he will. He did throw 39 passes without any interceptions. After a rocky first quarter, he made a lot of good throws and decisions.
No, he spun no magic on the final drive, but he looks like he can be everything he’s been billed as by teammates.
Iowa did have 460 yards on the road in a league game, a shakedown season-opener for everyone. You’d happily take 460 in each of the next seven games and take your chances.
“There’s still plenty of things to play for,” Petras said, “starting with beating Northwestern next week.
“The only goal of ours that is off the table at this point is being undefeated,”
OK. But to have that goal vanish in the first game, and hear players mention physicality, fundamentals and focus as problem spots afterward? That scrub brush better be sturdy.
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