How Iowa football’s timely offense, Jack Campbell fueled the win over CSU
IOWA CITY – A popular and accurate thought among Iowa fans after the first games of the season was that one day the offense would have to reclaim the defense and special teams to win a game.
While it would be an exaggeration to say that the offense gained the upper hand against Colorado State on Saturday, it did enough to help the Hawkeyes come out of a surprising halftime deficit.
Spencer Petras threw a 27-yard touchdown pass to Sam LaPorta to break a tie in the third quarter and pitched for a season-high 224 yards as sixth-place Iowa withstood a formidable effort from the Rams of the Mountain West Conference to win, 24-14, in front of 65,456 fans at Kinnick Stadium.
“There were ups and downs… but especially in the third quarter,” said Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz, “we’ve seen some growth and good things.”
It wasn’t the cruise control victory that punters had projected for the 23-point favorite Hawkeyes, who improved to 4-0. They were punched in the mouth by a physical team who a week ago were holding Toledo by 6 points. If you were wondering which Colorado State team would show up, this was the one – not the one that lost to FCS South Dakota State in the opener.
And if you’re going to witness a fight, you want to be on Jack Campbell’s side.
The formidable Iowa center linebacker was apparently everywhere on Saturday to help roll back Colorado State (1-3). He recorded 18 tackles, the most by a Hawkeye since Anthony Hitchens had 19 against Iowa State in 2012. And when Iowa needed a big game, Campbell was again, just like he was. was in Ames (with a fumble recovery touchdown) and final week (with a forced fumble as Kent State was close to scoring).
Campbell came across a forced fumble by Yahya Black that was gift-wrapped at the Colorado State 6-yard line with Iowa trailing, 14-7.
One play later, Tyrone Tracy Jr. trotted to the end zone on a well-crafted reverse call – a play resembling a “Statue of Liberty” – to tie the score, 14-14.
“I just try to get around the ball first and foremost, and usually good things happen,” said Campbell.
Petras’ 27-yard strike against LaPorta was also well designed. A fake tunnel screen that burned Iowa earlier left the near end alone in the Colorado state high school for Petras’ second touchdown pass of the day.
“We have been training all week,” said Petras. “We put on a few screens last week and thought we could take a picture on it.”
The thought of LaPorta while the ball was in the air?
“Don’t let it down,” he joked. “… When you’re so wide open, you question yourself.”
Petras then connected with Nico Ragaini for a 34-yard clutch to set up Caleb Shudak’s 45-yard basket for a 24-14 lead with 12:32 left in the game.
The defense resisted from there. He limited Colorado State to 32 yards in the third quarter and 58 in the fourth. And when the final horn sounded, the second half ended with Iowa recording their 26th straight game, keeping their opponent 24 points or less.
“They’re a great team. They gave us our best shot,” said Iowa defensive end Zach VanValkenburg. “We cannot go out of here with our heads down.”
Iowa’s tight-knit linebacker continues to be a strength of this team.
Not to be outdone, Seth Benson had 11 tackles, giving the Iowa inside linebacker tandem a total of 29 on Saturday. Campbell and Benson both later explained how their close friendship off the pitch helps them on the pitch.
Benson said he and Campbell regularly participated in Bible studies together.
“It’s just something that we value in our lives,” Benson said. “If it’s broken down I’m always going to pick it up. If I’m down it’s always going to pick me up. I still somehow know his manners.… See someone go about their business like they do, c it’s just pushing you to be taller. “
Campbell and Benson played as middle linebackers last year. Now, with last year’s linebacker Nick Niemann going to the Los Angeles Chargers, they’re together almost all the time in the middle of the Iowa defense.
“As a Christian it’s pretty cool to have someone right next to you who you’ve talked about difficult things with, someone you can trust,” Campbell said.
For the season, Campbell’s 43 tackles lead the team. Benson’s 31s are second. And fellow linebacker Jestin Jacobs continues to make an impact; he is third on the team with 24.
The worst half of Iowa’s season was the anti-Iowa half.
Leading 7-0 in the second quarter, things looked pretty good. So on the third and -8 of Iowa’s own 9s, offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz probably didn’t think he was making the worst decision in the world to hand him to fullback Monte Pottebaum for 4 yards.
But Tory Taylor’s ensuing punt was knocked back – the first I can remember for the Australian in his two-year career in Iowa – out of bounds for just 22 yards. The Hawkeyes are used to this style of work, with Taylor throwing a 60-yard yardstick and then letting the defense do its job.
But this time Colorado State shifted the field and converted three key third downs to tie the score at 7-7. The first, a 15-yard run from quarterback Todd Centeio on third and 11 of the 36, may have benefited from a penalty that was not called (Noah Shannon appeared to be held up to the point where the run of Centeio started).
Then, in response, the Iowa offense appeared to do what it used to – ending the second quarter with points – after Petras connected with Keagan Johnson for 49 yards. But a poor decision by Petras on a tunnel screen on CSU’s first and 10 of 14 ended his Ferentz-era record streak of 163 non-intercepting pass attempts. Instead of scoring a point halfway through and starting the third quarter with the ball and the lead, the Hawkeyes were in trouble.
Defensive back Robert Floyd caught the pass for Tracy and sent it back 62 yards to set up another Rams touchdown.
Think about Iowa’s victory over Iowa State. He was backed up by big punters and a big play defense. This time Iowa faced high-profile All-American punter Ryan Stonehouse and the victim of a big play defense.
As for the Iowa defense, it was good on the first and second downs in the first half, but not on the third down. The Rams converted nine of 13 third-down chances in the first 30 minutes; at the start of the game, they had converted just 18 of 51 (35%) and Iowa was allowing just 12 of 43 (28%) for the season.
Again, a totally non-Iowa half.
“They have a very good tight wing (in Trey McBride) and a very good football team,” said Benson. “We have to tighten up in the third downs and get off the pitch.… They gave us looks that we had to adapt to after half-time.”
It was a day of firsts (but not last) for Keagan Johnson.
The real Bellevue, Nebraska freshman got his first career start when he lined up as one of two wide receivers on the field on Saturday. He’s been a revelation since arriving on campus in January, certainly a reward for the growth and understanding of the playbook he’s shown in a short period of time.
Johnson would become the Hawkeyes’ best option on offense in the first half. When he beat his man on the straight sideline to grab a 43-yard touchdown pass from Petras, it was a signal that Johnson can do special things in Iowa.
“When I went out and saw the press (cover), me and Spencer, we know that. We have that connection,” Johnson said. “I can win those deep balls. I was just hoping I could get off the line cleanly. And thanks to Spencer, the ball couldn’t have been pitched better.”
Yeah, that was just his first career take. But it was a beauty. And it was hard; Johnson said he lost the ball to the sun as he arrived. He secured the ball on the 5-yard line but made sure to protect it while being tackled as it tumbled into the end zone.
“I lost the ball for about three seconds. Luckily it came back into my vision,” Johnson said.
As a reminder, Johnson took down a 49-yard-deep shot from Petras late in the second quarter. It didn’t lead to points. But Iowa is heading into the Big Ten game knowing he has a potential passing threat deep in his pocket. Johnson finished with those two catches for 92 yards, or 33.1 percent of Iowa’s 278 yards.
The last time Iowa had a real deep threat to freshmen? He also wore No.6: Ihmir Smith-Marsette in 2017.
Owners of the longest non-conference winning streak in the country? Iowa hawk eyes.
Oops, Minnesota. PJ Fleck’s Golden Gophers responded poorly after beating Colorado 30-0 last week, falling astoundingly at home to 31-point underdog Bowling Green, 14-10. Bowling Green had lost 11 straight games on FBS until Saturday, a stark reminder – especially in Minneapolis – that teams must show up ready to play every Saturday.
As a result, Minnesota’s 21-game non-conference winning streak ended on Saturday. And now, after beating Colorado State, the Hawkeyes have the best non-conference streak in the country at 15.
Of these 15, four faced the Big 12 (all in Iowa), three Mid-American (Northern Illinois, Miami of Ohio, Kent State), two Mountain West (Wyoming, Colorado State), two Conference USA (Middle Tennessee , North Texas), FCS (Northern Iowa), ACC (Boston College in Pinstripe Bowl 2017), SEC (Mississippi State in Outback 2019) and Pac-12 (USC in Holiday Bowl 2019).
The Hawkeyes’ last non-conference loss was on Jan. 1, 2017, to Florida in the Outback Bowl. Their next non-conference game will likely be in a bowl game this season. In 2022, Iowa’s three non-Big Ten games are at home against South Dakota State, Iowa State and Nevada.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow covered the sport for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.