WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind., — Maybe it’s the age of perimeter football in the Big Ten West.
Outside of Iowa and Wisconsin, spread offenses line the division. Northwestern has spread elements. The Hawkeyes’ opponent this week also is last in the Big Ten with 93.0 rushing yards per game and is two victories away from its first appearance in the Big Ten title game.
Northwestern (5-4, 5-1 Big Ten) isn’t the best example of this. The Wildcats are flying at 1,000 feet on offense. They rely on a stingy, opportunistic defense and head coach Pat Fitzgerald’s controlled cussedness.
You saw the best example of this at Ross-Ade Stadium.
Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm is 2-0 against Iowa. In 2017, less than three minutes into the third quarter, Purdue targeted one Iowa cornerback spot six straight times. Five passes were completed and there was a pass interference.
Iowa ended up pulling two corners before moving all-American Josh Jackson over to stop the bleeding.
It wasn’t exactly the same, but Purdue executed a similar plan in its 38-36 victory over the Hawkeyes (6-3, 3-3).
Quarterback David Blough threw for 333 yards, most against the Hawkeyes in 19 games, and four TD passes. In 2017, it was Anthony Mahoungou with seven catches for 135 yards and a pair of TDs.
This year, it was wide receiver Terry Wright. He more than doubled his previous highs in games with six catches for 146 yards and three TDs. Freshman corner Riley Moss was targeted, just like the other side was last season.
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Here’s Blough in 2017’s postgame: “We knew one of (the cornerbacks) was really good and we knew where he was at, so without question we wanted to work the other way. We were able to take advantage of that at times and it paid off.”
And Saturday: “We thought we had a speed advantage over there on that side. Terry is as fast as anybody on our team and Rondale (Moore), probably neck and neck in the race.”
Jackson signed a $6.2 million contract to play corner for the Packers about the same time Moss was a state champion hurdler at Ankeny Centennial.
Michael Ojemudia eventually replaced Moss. Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said competition will continue at the position, but completely and totally backed Moss and fellow true freshman corner Julius Brents, who was hit with a pass interference penalty late in the game that moved Purdue into range for the game-winning field goal.
Iowa’s pass rush and secondary have worked together this season to make Iowa the No. 2 defense in the Big Ten. Iowa managed one sack against Purdue.
“They didn’t want our pass rush,” defensive end A.J. Epenesa said. “I thought we dominated the line of scrimmage all day long. There’s only so much you can do when they lob the ball up there and catch it.”
Ferentz Iowa has long invested a ton into what it wants to be on the line of scrimmage. Ferentz Iowa wants to play power football. It wants to drag you into the phone booth and go to work on the body.
Purdue schemed around that. The Boilermakers ran maybe a half dozen screen passes to punish an eager rush. Blough had the ball out of his hands in three seconds or less on nearly every pass. When Iowa did get pressure, Blough showed quick enough feet to break contain. He added 28 rushing yards.
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Blitz? Then the ball would’ve gone underneath. Purdue schemed and executed. That’s two years in a row Purdue’s perimeter game has outrun the Hawkeyes.
Also — and let’s face it — there’s much more officiating inconsistency on the perimeter. Pass interference, either way, is a call that is open to interpretation. You have the Brents play. Brents and Purdue's Isaac Zico were hand fighting both ways and Brents got called. Then you have Iowa’s second PAT pass attempt. Tight end Noah Fant was hugged by free safety Navon Mosley and never got open.
Iowa also lost for the second consecutive week while averaging less than 4.0 yards per carry. Two weeks ago at Penn State, it was 3.55 yards per. Against Purdue, it was 3.1. Iowa’s five 20-plus yard rushes are last in the Big Ten and 123rd in the country. Last year, the Hawkeyes had 17 20-plus rushes.
In 2015, Iowa rushed for 2,544 yards. This year, the Hawkeyes are tracking at 1,411 yards with three games in the regular season. That puts a lot of pressure on the passing game and defense.
When Purdue hits on three long passes for 150-plus yards and three TDs and Blough averages 10.4 yards per pass attempt on 32 passes, not many teams are going to keep up with that.
Maybe the pendulum swings next season, but this is two straight years Iowa hasn’t been able to keep up with Purdue. The styles will always contrast. One of them might have a shorter shelf life than the other. We’ll eventually see which one. And, hey, that Nebraska offense is starting to look pretty interesting.
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