By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – The defensive players on the Iowa football team were determined to earn more than just a victory against Iowa State on Saturday, and it was mission accomplished in both cases.
Iowa hung on to defeat the Cyclones 13-3 before a sellout crowd of 69,250 at Kinnick Stadium.
Saturday’s game was in stark contrast to last season when the Hawkeyes edged Iowa State 44-41 in overtime in Ames despite surrendering 467 yards, including 347 passing yards.
“We came in the game with a chip on our shoulder,” said sophomore defensive end A.J. Epenesa, who led Iowa with two sacks and two tackles for loss in Saturday's game. “We tried to come in here and shut them down because they did score so many points on us (last season).
“And I don’t think that’s us, letting other teams score that many points. If we can play our game and do what we do, I think we should be able to hold people down. And we came in with a chip on our shoulder thinking we’ve got to stop these guys.”
Iowa State marched down the field on its first possession of the game by using a combintion of short passes and the running of David Montgomery, but the drive stalled at the Iowa 1-yard line, thanks to a false start penalty. The Cyclones settled for a 23-yard field goal, and they would never come close to scoring any points again as the Iowa defense took over.
It’s a good thing that Epenesa and his defensive cohorts came to play because the Iowa offense performed woefully during most of the game on Saturday.
There were long stretches when Iowa couldn’t run or throw, but Iowa State’s offense was even worse, thanks to Iowa’s defense.
The Cyclones were held to 19 rushing yards and 188 yards overall as Iowa improved to 2-0 on the young season.
“I just think we play off each other,” said Iowa center Keegan Render. “Obviously, last year, we had to pick up our defense and this year they had to pick us up. It just shows that, obviously, they weren’t happy last year and they came out and they played.
“We see the defensive line every day in practice and we know they’re going to be coming and they’re going to be ready and they’re a hungry group. For them to come out and play the way they did I think is really awesome.”
Iowa State coach Matt Campbell, who saw his record fall to 0-3 against the Hawkeyes, minced no words when explaining where his team couldn’t compete with Iowa.
“I’d love to sit here and make great excuses for what happened,” Campbell said. “But first of all, I’ll tip my hat to our opponent. I thought in the reality of it, in the line of scrimmage where the games are still won in this sport, they dominated.
“Unfortunately, we did not have the ability to adjust.”
Iowa’s offense finally put together the game’s only touchdown-scoring drive in the fourth quarter, which helped to secure Kirk Ferentz’s 145th career win.
Reserve running back Mekhi Sargent scored on a 2-yard run, and Miguel Recinos added the extra-point kick to give Iowa 13-3 lead with 4 minutes 47 seconds left to play.
Sophomore receiver Brandon Smith helped to set up the touchdown by catching a 30-yard pass from quarterback Nate Stanley, giving Iowa a first down at the Iowa State 2-yard line.
Sargent then dashed around left end for the game’s only touchdown, completing a 13-play, 83-yard drive that chewed 6:30 off the game clock.
It was Smith’s first catch of the season and the fourth in his young career.
“I felt like it was going to come pretty soon,” Smith said. “I felt that we needed to make a big-spark play. I knew it was coming.”
Iowa State used to be Kirk Ferentz’s kryptonite, but that isn’t the case anymore as Saturday’s victory gave Ferentz his first four-game winning streak against the Cyclones in 20 seasons as the Iowa head coach.
Iowa also has won 11 of the last 16 games against Iowa State after having lost the first four games in the series under Ferentz.
“First thing is obviously what a difference a year makes,” Ferentz said. “Last year was a track meet up and down the field. And today was just a great defensive battle by both teams. I thought both teams really played hard, competed hard, and that’s exactly what you would expect in this kind of football game.”
The first half was highly entertaining if you’re into short runs, incomplete passes, bad punts and missed field goals.
Iowa failed to establish much on the ground in the first two quarters with just 47 rushing yards on 17 carries, and the passing attack was even worse as Stanley only completed 5-of-11 passes for 26 yards in the first half.
Stanley was reluctant to throw downfield, but that was partly due to his receivers struggling to create space and get open.
Iowa’s ineptitude on offense in the first half was certainly a group effort with plenty of blame to go around. You name it and the Hawkeyes struggled to do it on offense, including blocking, running, throwing and catching.
It was so bad that you could’ve made a strong case that Iowa State punter Corey Dunn was Iowa’s most valuable player in the first half after he had back-to-back punts that covered just 14 and 13 yards.
The Iowa offense let Dunn off the hook, though, by going three-and-out and by missing a short field goal after his first short punt, and then by settling for a 31-yard field goal by Recinos after the second poor punt.
Iowa State’s offense wasn’t much better in the first half, producing just 105 yards on 28 plays.
Star running back David Montgomery needed 13 carries to gain just 34 yards in the first half. He finished the game with 44 rushing yards on 17 carries.
“All we did was just come out and swarm to the ball and wrap up and make tackles,” said redshirt freshman linebacker Djimon Colbert, who made his first career start on Saturday. “That was really all it came down to.”
Stanley finally struck downfield when he connected with Ihmir Smith-Marsette on a 45-yard pass to the Cyclone 25-yard line with 8:44 left in the third quarter.
But the drive stalled and Iowa settled for a 48-yard field goal by Recinos with 6:34 left in the third quarter.
That gave Iowa its first lead in a game that sort of felt like the first team to score 10 points would prevail.
Smith-Marsette injured his shoulder after making the catch, but Ferentz said after the game that Smith-Marsette’s x-ray was negative.
There was talk that Iowa would have an advantage in Saturday’s game after having played a game the previous Saturday, whereas Iowa State’s season opener against South Dakota State was cancelled due to lightning barely four minutes into the game.
“It’s really hard to quantify, quite frankly,” Ferentz said.
What isn't hard to quantify at this stage is that Iowa’s defense is performing at a much higher level than the offense at this point.
Stanley entered Saturday’s game having completed just 47.8 percent of his passes in the previous five games combined dating back to last season. He completed 16-of-28 passes in Saturday’s game, but no receiver had more than one catch.
“We’re sporadic,” Ferentz said when asked to evaluate his offense. “We’re hit or miss right now. We don’t have a rhythm. We haven’t showed and sustained. So we’ll keep pushing, and that’s usually the hardest things to do and the hardest thing to establish.
“And you talk about the month of September, that’s really the task that’s out there is how do we develop a little more rhythm and get things going a little bit better. We’ll just keep swinging the bat, but it’ll come. They guys are working hard and we’ve got the right guys.”
Iowa’s performance on defense was so impressive that defensive coordinator Phil Parker, who is hard to please, was reportedly seen smiling in the closing seconds of the game.
“He’s grumpy, but he couldn’t fake that in the fourth quarter,” Ferentz said. “That was a really good defensive effort.”