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Leistikow's 6 thoughts from Iowa's impressive 27-10 win at Rutgers

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The defense did what it does. The special teams were superior. The offense broke open holes in the run game that it hadn’t before and played a second straight turnover-free game. And, lo and behold, the Iowa Hawkeyes appear to be rounding into form as they prepare for an October gauntlet.

Iowa played its most complete football game of the season Saturday night by overpowering Rutgers, 27-10, before an announced sellout crowd of 53,117 at SHI Stadium.

Recall it was a year ago in Week 5 that the Hawkeyes answered some lingering questions with a dominant road performance in an East Coast night game, hammering previously unbeaten Maryland 51-10 with a swarming defensive performance and a clean offensive game.

Fifty-one weeks later, the 2022 Hawkeyes went on the road to silence a seemingly resurgent East Coast team at night. And now they return to Iowa City to face unbeaten Michigan, the nation’s fourth-ranked team, at home on Oct. 1.

After that Maryland game last year, Iowa came home to beat … the fourth-ranked team in the country in Penn State, 23-20.

That’s not to say Iowa will repeat last year’s history, but it’s safe to say there’s a better feeling now than a week ago that the Hawkeyes can give Michigan a decent shot in what amounts to a Big Ten Championship Game rematch.

What started the good feelings, naturally, was a defense that continued its dominant play. Beyond the defensive touchdowns from Cooper DeJean (45-yard interception return in the first quarter) and Kaevon Merriweather (30-yard fumble return in the second), the defensive line was constantly hounding Rutgers quarterback Evan Simon. Iowa ended up with only three sacks, but the pressure was constant, including a punishing hit from Lukas Van Ness that contributed to an altered pass on DeJean’s TD runback.

But it was the offense that looked like it had a pulse in the run game and even the pass game. While Iowa gained only 277 total yards, it also ran just 55 plays because its defense kept scoring. A strong second quarter (129 yards) seemed to turn the tide, and the Hawkeyes’ sack-adjusted rushing average was 4.2 yards per carry against the nation’s No. 1 rushing defense. Rutgers had allowed 32.7 yards per game before Saturday; Iowa cranked out 129 rushing yards on 38 attempts.

"I think we saw improvement in all three phases," head coach Kirk Ferentz said. "At least that was my vantage point."

Maybe the most impressive drive of Iowa's season occurred to start the third quarter. Leading 17-3 out of the halftime break, Iowa took the halftime kickoff and marched 75 yards on nine plays. Leshon Williams, who missed last week's game while attending his father's funeral, started the drive with runs of 9, 9 and 21 yards. He got the finishing reward of a 2-yard TD, a nice moment for a Hawkeye with a heavy heart.

"That's a beautiful feeling, especially after losing your father," Williams said. "I know he was there with me tonight, so that touchdown meant a lot to me."

Tight ends finally show up big

Coming into Iowa’s season, two of the team’s best offensive players were expected to be tight ends Sam LaPorta and Luke Lachey. But through three games, neither had much of an impact. Their combined stats: 15 catches for 97 yards. Thirty-two yards a game and 6.5 yards per catch is hardly production worthy of Tight End U.

But Saturday, they were the favored targets of quarterback Spencer Petras (11-of-17 passing, 148 yards) time and time again. And perhaps not coincidentally, the Hawkeyes had their smoothest-looking offense of the season.

LaPorta’s day was highlighted by a 42-yard deep ball from Petras as he ran a double move up the left sideline and got behind Rutgers safety Christian Izien to haul in a perfectly thrown pass in the second quarter. That play fueled Iowa’s longest drive since the Citrus Bowl, a 12-play, 87-yard march that was capped by Drew Stevens’ 25-yard field goal to produce a 17-3 halftime lead. LaPorta finished with four catches for 77 yards.

“We showed that out-breaker against Iowa State a couple times, so we thought we had a chance on tape … we thought we could get a one-on-one on a safety or a corner," Petras said of the 42-yard connection to LaPorta. "Great route, great protection, hell of a catch.”

Lachey, meanwhile, made two important first-down catches. The first was a 17-yard catch to the right sideline on second-and-16 from Iowa’s 25 in the second quarter. The second was a 20-yarder on second-and-10 that put Iowa at the Rutgers 7-yard line early in the third quarter. Four plays later, Leshon Williams ran into the end zone from 2 yards out for a 24-3 lead. Lachey finished with two catches for 37 yards.

Interestingly, Iowa had zero wide-receiver targets — let alone receptions — in the first three quarters. Sophomore Keagan Johnson did not make the trip with a recurring hamstring injury. Arland Bruce IV had the only wide-receiver catch; it went for five yards. Ferentz said Bruce was iffy for the game with an injury, so that's something to watch going forward.

Iowa QB Spencer Petras talks win at Rutgers, offensive progress + more
Quarterback Spencer Petras completed 11-of-17 passes in Iowa's 27-10 road win at Rutgers.
Kennington Lloyd Smith III, Hawk Central

Sebastian Castro comes up (really) big in a pinch

With terrific starting cornerback Terry Roberts getting injured in Friday’s practice (according to his father on Twitter), fourth-year junior Castro’s time was here. The Oak Lawn, Illinois, native became Iowa’s cash cornerback in the 4-2-5 Saturday — with DeJean manning corner full-time opposite Riley Moss — and wasted no time making an immediate impact.

That especially showed up on back-to-back plays in the second quarter. On a second-and-5 from Rutgers’ 12, Castro stepped in and made a nice play to break up a pass to Isaiah Washington. On the next play, Castro didn’t quit as Joshua Youngblood raced for an 18-yard gain. As Jack Campbell wasn’t able to chase Youngblood down from behind, Castro sprinted and dove to undercut Youngblood’s legs, knocking the football loose (Campbell arrived to add to the crunch). Castro headily turned his head and saw that Merriweather had scooped the ball and Castro led a parade of Iowa blockers (who didn’t need to do anything but celebrate) as Merriweather scored on a 30-yard return for a 14-3 Hawkeyes lead.

Castro’s presence was needed as outside linebacker Jestin Jacobs (who plays in the 4-3) had to leave the game with an injury and did not return. According to Ferentz, the Jacobs injury "didn't look good," which sounds ominous. We'll know more Tuesday.

Depending on the Jacobs and Roberts situations (Roberts did go through warmups but then did not play, and Ferentz sounded more hopeful he could return next week), Castro could be a key cog again next week vs. Michigan.

Now for the real drama: Who won the Australian punter battle?

Rutgers' Adam Korsak punted only four times for a 42-yard average. When an offense commits three turnovers and another turnover-on-downs in the first three quarters, that limits the impact a punter can have on a game.

Therefore, Iowa's Tory Taylor was the winner. Both first-half punts that he cornered inside the 10-yard line (one at the 4, one at the 7) turned into defensive touchdowns for the Hawkeyes. He did have one kick partially tipped (so that went as a team punt) but it still rolled forward for a 39-yard boot. And he got the last word, launching a 51-yard punt that rolled out of bounds at the Rutgers' 6-yard line with 2:47 remaining.

Taylor officially averaged 42.6 yards on five punts with four downed at the 11 or deeper.

RB Leshon Williams details first game back with team following his father's passing
Iowa running back Leshon Williams missed the team's last game to attend his father's funeral. He scored his first touchdown of the season on Saturday.
Kennington Lloyd Smith III, Hawk Central

True freshmen continue to make a mark

After strong performances in last week’s win against Nevada, Ferentz showed even more trust and confidence in running back Kaleb Johnson and kicker Drew Stevens at Rutgers.

Johnson got the nod again as No. 1 kick returner — taking that role from Moss — and answered with two runbacks for 77 yards (one for 42, one for 35). That yardage helps a ton when Iowa plays field-position ball.

And in the backfield, Johnson rushed 15 times for 58 yards – almost all of that coming in the first half (nine rushes, 53 yards) when Iowa needed its offense to kick it into gear. Johnson’s running style looks almost effortless, but obviously it’s not. He appears to be Iowa’s fastest of the three running backs, with touchdown runs of 40 and 55 yards last week.

“He’s just improved with each day out there, and he’s just a tremendous young guy. He’s got an unbelievable attitude,” Ferentz said. “I thought he took some big strides last week. We’re very comfortable with him in the game, and I think that gives us three pretty good options in the backfield right now.”

Stevens, meanwhile, got the call to attempt a 51-yard field goal midway through the fourth quarter with Iowa leading by 14 points. A miss, and Rutgers could have had good field position and a chance to keep things interesting. But Stevens launched a high kick that had plenty of distance and bounced in off the left upright. He’s now 4-for-4 on field goals since taking over the placements job from Aaron Blom; this was a good test for the rookie.

Last but not least, true freshman Aaron Graves capitalized on a pass-heavy Rutgers plan in the fourth quarter to notch 1½ sacks despite limited action. He looks like a tremendous depth piece for now and a future star on the Hawkeyes’ defensive line.

In the Big Ten West, Minnesota looks like the team to beat

I mentioned Iowa's October gauntlet. That starts with Michigan and includes a road trip to improving Illinois before an off week, then a trip to No. 3 Ohio State, which obliterated Wisconsin, 52-21, on Saturday. 

So the Hawkeyes have way more to worry about than the West Division race right now. But P.J. Fleck's Golden Gophers look to be for real after dismantling Michigan State, 34-7, in East Lansing on Saturday to improve to 4-0. They didn't skip a beat despite losing receiver Chris Autman-Bell for the season, with Tanner Morgan completing 23 of 26 passes for 268 yards. The most insane Minnesota stat of the year, though, is 41-for-53 success on third-down conversions (77.4%).

By comparison, Iowa was 1-for-9 on third down Saturday and is 15-for-53 (28.3%) for the season. A good goal for the Hawkeyes would be within one game of Minnesota when the two teams clash on Nov. 19 at Huntington Bank Stadium. 

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.