We’re blessed with not one, but two great Iowa blogs out there. Black Heart Gold Pants is the long-time SB Nation site that is great, while Go Iowa Awesome is a group of former BHGP writers hat are the originators of the MOST HATED RIVAL idea between Purdue and Iowa.
And yes, the hate still rages after all these years.
This week I spoke with both, as Jonah Parker from BHGP and RossWB from Go Iowa Awesome were available to answer my questions.
T-Mill: How does it feel to be the No. 2 team in the nation? Is that higher than you expected or is it legit?
Jonah: I think if you asked any reasonable Iowa fan ahead of the season how they expected things to play out, nobody would have guessed this group would be unbeaten at this point. After losing a pair of receivers to the NFL and a trio up front on the offensive line, we knew there would be limitations on this offense. On the other side of the ball, the defensive line was also replacing three guys who departed for the NFL and the expectation was this group would struggle to stop the run or pressure QBs.
So far, that’s been wrong and so have Hawkeye fans. Iowa remains unbeaten with one of the best defenses we’ve seen. Regardless of how the national narrative has flipped (in literally the last week), they’ve played the most difficult first six games I can recall an Iowa team opening a season with and they’ve been in one game that was close in the fourth quarter. They’re one of three teams with a trio of top-25 wins and one of two teams to do that while not losing another game elsewhere.
We’ll see in time just how good this team is, but for now, Iowa fans are trying to enjoy the ride (as much as they can given our predisposition to pessimism) and given the resume, the rankings feels legit.
Ross: I don’t think many (any?) Iowa fans had visions of a #2 ranking in their heads before the season began. We knew this team had some good returning pieces (Tyler Goodson, Tyler Linderbaum on offense; Jack Campbell and the entire secondary on defense), but it also had a lot of question marks (could the new faces on OL and DL step in and play at a high level, could Spencer Petras improve). Halfway through the season, the returning pieces have been as good (or better) than expected and the answers to the question marks have ranged from solid (the OL) to outstanding (the new-look DL). It’s all come together in a pretty special way so far this season and we’re all pretty excited to see how far they can take things. Is it “legit”? I guess we’ll find out over the next 6-7 weeks.
T-Mill: 16 interceptions on the year? Three defensive touchdowns? Goodness, what is going on there?
Jonah: The wildest thing is when you turn on the film, there is nothing out of the ordinary going on. At all. This is the same defensive scheme Iowa has been running for years. And perhaps that’s what has been so frustrating for every offense that’s faced them.
There aren’t a bunch of uber athletes on the defense, but the secondary is veteran heavy and the linebackers are all NFL-caliber. The defensive line has proven more stout against the run than any Iowa fan could have hoped for and that has allowed the secondary to play free and fast within their assignments. They aren’t doing anything exciting, just executing Phil Parker’s scheme to perfection and virtually every time an opponent has made a mistake, this defense has capitalized.
Ross: This defense has been tremendous from the jump — I mean, three interceptions and two pick-sixes in the first half of the season opener against Indiana was one hell of an opening statement for that unit. The defensive touchdowns owe a bit more to good luck than anything else, although at least one of them was a testament to good preparation, as the DB perfectly read the play, jumped the route, and had an open lane to the end zone as a result. But the interception flurry as a whole is just something Iowa has been doing for a while now; they’ve been at or near the top of the INT leaderboards often in recent seasons. This year’s stunning display just seems like the apotheosis of that form. The defensive backs are all really experienced (all of them are at least second-year starters, although there’s likely to be a less experienced starter — Terry Roberts — on the field against Purdue, due to an injury to Riley Moss last week), they all have good instincts, and they all have good hands — turns out that’s a great formula for hauling in interceptions. In front of them, they’ve also got defensive linemen and linebackers that are good at getting their arms up and into passing lanes if they’re not able to directly pressure the QB, which has led to tipped and deflected balls that led to interceptions, too. And when the defensive linemen and linebackers are able to get pressure on the QB (which has been pretty often this season) that’s usually resulted in rushed or bad decisions... which often leads to more interceptions. It’s been a wonderful system to watch this year.
T-Mill: On the other hand, David Bell is a Hawkeye killer. Is he the best receiver you’ll see?
Jonah: David Bell is like Freddy Krueger to Hawkeye fans. He was a guy the Iowa staff really went after hard, right in the midst of their success tapping the Indianapolis recruiting grounds. We were all salivating over the potential to have him in the black and old gold (yellow, whatever) and he’s absolutely lived up to our expectations - just in the wrong uniform.
That said, I think Jahan Dotson is probably the most physically gifted receiver Iowa will see all year. The Hawkeyes held him to just 48 yards and no TDs on 8 catches (PSU really liked to throw him bubble screens on the edge instead of trying to run), but it’s worth noting a good portion of the game was played with a backup QB.
Dontay Demus of Maryland is also very talented and he was torching the Iowa secondary up the seam of the two-high safeties (4 for 61) before he exited with an incredibly unfortunate leg injury. And I would throw Ty Fryfogle of Indiana in there as a very talented guy that this secondary has faced (5 for 84).
Ross: He’s certainly the best wide receiver that they’ll see in the regular season. If Iowa makes it to the Big Ten Championship Game and faces Ohio State, that might change — their disturbingly good wide receiver corps will pose a huge challenge, especially Chris Olave. But in terms of the regular season, I think Bell is the guy to beat. The only other regular season receiver I’d put in the discussion is probably Penn State’s Jahan Dotson, but he hasn’t been quite the big play threat this year that Bell is (and has been in the past, too). Iowa fans (myself included) still get nightmares thinking about David Bell catching pass after pass after pass (after pass) against Iowa. I mean, 26 receptions (!), 318 yards, and 4 TD in just two games pretty much says it all. He’s been an absolute monster against Iowa and I am not looking forward to seeing what he’s able to do in his third meeting with the Hawkeyes.
T-Mill: The offense is much maligned, but not as bad as some say. How much have shorter fields helped them given the turnover difference?
Jonah: Field position has always been a major focus for the Hawkeyes under Kirk Ferentz, but this season has seen things taken to another level. With as well as the defense is playing, this offense has been perfectly happy to play field position for long stretches of the game as the grip of the boa constrictor slowly tightens.
Eventually, Tory Taylor pins an opponent inside the two or the defense comes up with a big turnover and the offense takes over in plus territory. Through the first five games, that led to 78 points off of turnovers (out of 166 total points).
Things slowed down a bit against Penn State, which boasts the best defense Iowa has face thus far, as the Hawkeyes turned four turnovers into just three points. That will certainly be a metric to monitor this weekend as the offense absolutely has struggled to put together sustained drives on a regular basis.
Ross: The shorter fields have been a boon for Iowa’s offense, no question. Whether generated through turnovers or through advantageous punting, Iowa has had the best starting field position in the nation this season. That’s definitely been a huge boost to an offense that has been challenged when it comes to consistently maintaining long scoring drives. The closer they can start to the opponent’s end zone, the better. I’m hoping to see a few more short fields for Iowa on Saturday.
T-Mill: Any chance of a letdown after last week?
Jonah: That’s absolutely the fear for Iowa fans. Purdue has given the Hawkeyes all they can handle under Brohm and coming off the biggest win in more than three decades (Iowa last played in a battle of two top-5s back in 1985 when the #1 Hawkeyes defeated the #2 Michigan Wolverines) it’s conceivable Iowa gets caught thinking about the potential this season holds.
Ross: Yes, absolutely. The players have all been saying the right things this week about maintaining focus and being ready for Purdue on Saturday, but it would be hard not to experience some level of a let-down after that game last week. That was the biggest game most of those guys have ever played in their lives and the juice that was so easy to call on for that game isn’t going to be there this week. The atmosphere won’t be as electric, the stakes aren’t as epic, etc. I do think it helps that the game is against Purdue, who beat Iowa last year and who has had a lot of success against Iowa in recent years. That should make it easier for these Iowa players to focus on this game because they know it’s not going to be easy and they know Purdue is very capable of beating them, since they’ve done it often lately. All the non-freshmen on this team know what it’s like to play Purdue and lose, so hopefully those memories add some fire to their preparation for this week’s game.
T-Mill: Does Jeff Brohm have Ferentz’ number?
Jonah: It sure seems like it through four meetings (and yes, he was technically out last year due to COVID, but it’s still his team). This year may be the truest test of that. Iowa defensive back Riley Moss, who Brohm has picked on in the past, won’t be around this weekend, but this secondary is still incredibly talented and experienced. The run defense is stout and if the Boilermakers are able to put points on the board to break Iowa’s streak of opponents held under 25 points, that would be enough for just about every Iowa fan to get on the campaign trail and help Jeff Brohm get any job in the nation outside the Big Ten.
Ross: For the time being, I don’t think I have much choice but to say “yes.” He’s won three of four games against Ferentz so far and he’s often done it with less talent at several positions. His schemes and gameplans have given Iowa fits, on offense and (especially) on defense. That’s certainly impressive, and more than a little terrifying from an Iowa perspective. I’m certainly not taking this game lightly. Having someone’s number doesn’t necessarily last, though — James Franklin had won four in a row over Iowa with Penn State, but Iowa’s won the last two meetings now. So the worm can turn; I know I certainly hope that it does quickly in the case of Iowa-Purdue and Brohm-Ferentz. But, yeah, at this point Brohm certainly has the upper hand in this rivalry.