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Leistikow's DVR Monday: Iowa football's dominance of Purdue reveals future building blocks

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Iowa's 24-3 domination of Purdue on Saturday in West Lafayette, Indiana, provided the Hawkeyes with their most complete performance of the season for a second straight week. They have a lot of momentum and positive vibes entering a Heartland Trophy showdown vs. Wisconsin (which has an equivalent 5-4 overall record and 3-3 in league play) at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.

But beyond what the win at Purdue did for this year's team, there was a lot of encouragement to be found about the future of Hawkeye football. Through seven games of the season, it was hard to see much progress or good developing stories. In a 33-13 win vs. Northwestern and now this triumph against Purdue, future building blocks are being discovered.

This week's DVR Monday highlights six of them who stood out at Ross-Ade Stadium.

Linebacker Jay Higgins

With linebackers coach Seth Wallace saying recently that Jestin Jacobs was looking forward to returning from his season-ending arm surgery as a fifth-year senior, that was a great bit of news for the 2023 Hawkeyes. Jacobs is a future NFL linebacker and could lock down the weak-side linebacker spot after Seth Benson departs.

Replacing Jack Campbell at middle linebacker will be a tall task, but Higgins looks like he can play. Higgins made the most of his 17 snaps Saturday.

More:Iowa postgame mailbag: Are the Hawkeyes primed to run the table in November?

Purdue had a first down on its own 41 on its second drive (after a defensive holding call on Riley Moss) and to that point had 31 rushing yards on three carries. The rest of the day, Purdue netted 56 rushing yards on 28 carries (three sacks included). That stingy run defense began when Higgins delivered a punishing tackle on Dylan Downing on first-and-10. On a delayed draw, Higgins quickly shoved away 310-pound lineman Gus Hartwig and engulfed Downing for a punishing, no-gain tackle.

At a generous 6-foot-2 and 229 pounds, Higgins’ size isn’t imposing, but he looks like a hard-nosed redshirt sophomore with a bright future. He'll be relied upon plenty this week against Wisconsin's heavier offensive sets.

Spencer Petras outlines why Iowa's offense had success at Purdue
Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras completed 13 of 23 passes for 192 yards with two touchdowns in a 24-3 win vs. Purdue.
Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

Left tackle Mason Richman

The Hawkeyes’ top-rated offensive player by Pro Football Focus was the redshirt sophomore, who two weeks ago against Ohio State had a 0.0 pass-block rating. In this one, Richman got an 87.4 grade in pass protection.

His improving technique and play showed up on one of the game’s critical swing plays. After two straight empty possessions to open the game and the Hawkeyes pinned inside their own 10-yard line to start their third drive, Spencer Petras used a five-step drop from under center as he was looking for a deep shot to tight end Sam LaPorta. Credit the entire offensive line for offering a clean pocket, but Richman’s pass drop and strength to push back defensive end Khordae Sydnor stood out. Richman shoved Sydnor a good 7-8 yards out of the play, quite the luxury for a quarterback’s blind side. With that time to throw, Petras looped a perfect ball to LaPorta for a 41-yard gain to spark the Hawkeyes’ first touchdown drive of the day.

Hat tip here to the combination of Richman and new left guard Connor Colby, who are roommates. Assembling that pairing − with Colby being moved inside after starting Iowa's first seven games at right tackle − seems to be a positive move.

Defensive back Sebastian Castro

With persistent injury issues sidelining Terry Roberts for all but one Big Ten game and cornerback Jermari Harris missing the entire season, the redshirt junior has stepped up in a big way. Castro experienced some lumps at Ohio State two weeks ago but in this game was spot-on with his technique. Purdue’s Jeff Brohm might have seen Castro as a weak spot in Iowa’s defense coming in, but he played a strong game and gives this Hawkeye defense a nice chess piece going into 2023 after the departures of Moss and Kaevon Merriweather.

More:Iowa Hawkeyes earn high marks in key Big Ten West win over Purdue Boilermakers

Castro’s impact was felt early in the second quarter. He was lined up in the right slot in a zone situation as the Hawkeyes’ cash defender in the 4-2-5 alignment. Castro smartly passed off receiver Mershawn Rice to Moss, then dropped into the passing lane of slot receiver Tyrone Tracy Jr. That coverage forced Purdue quarterback Aidan O’Connell to throw over the top to Tracy, and the ball sailed with the wind into Merriweather’s hands for an interception. (Iowa’s offense turned that into a touchdown three plays later.)

Later in the first half when Purdue had first-and-goal from the 2, Castro sniffed out Purdue’s plans for a rollout-right pass and blanketed Andrew Sowinski in man coverage. And then in the third quarter, Castro (5-11, 207) planted Tracy into the ground after breaking up a third-and-3 pass attempt. While a more veteran body in the secondary, Castro is certainly ascending.

Running back Kaleb Johnson

After Johnson’s impressive 44-yard outside-zone run along the left sideline midway through the second quarter, Fox play-by-play man Eric Collins remarked, “Shades of Ronnie Harmon!” Collins earlier in the broadcast correctly noted that Johnson hails from Hamilton, Ohio, the home of former Hawkeye basketball great Greg Stokes. He even lobbed in a “young Tavian Banks” comparison in the third quarter after Johnson’s 75-yard touchdown run.

I wrote a ton about Johnson after the Iowa win, but it’s worth highlighting just how good he was Saturday while getting 22 carries and two receptions on his 39 snaps for a total of 217 yards. On that 44-yarder, Johnson should’ve been stopped for a 7-yard gain, but he gracefully juked fifth-year senior cornerback Cory Trice and kept motoring full speed ahead. Equally impressive, once four Boilermakers arrived to haul him down, Johnson got an extra 10 yards of forward momentum to the Purdue 41-yard line. That helped set up a Drew Stevens field goal and 17-0 Hawkeye lead.

After the game, head coach Kirk Ferentz noted, “He’s still figuring it out as a back, but he did pretty good today for not knowing what he’s doing sometimes.” One of those rookie blunders was when Iowa had second-and-goal from the Purdue 3. A jet-sweep left to Arland Bruce IV was perfectly blocked. LaPorta and fullback Monte Pottebaum had cleared a hole to the left, and Richman sealed the hole on the right that opened a cavernous hole. However, Johnson went to take the handoff from Petras and collided with Bruce for a blown-up play and a loss of four yards. Petras was clearly upset with the freshman afterward, and the mistake cost Iowa four points because Bruce would’ve had a touchdown for a 21-0 Iowa lead.

Still, Johnson was named Big Ten offensive player of the week for his tremendous performance at Purdue.

Sam LaPorta sees 'snowball effect' of Iowa offense as winds howl
Iowa tight end Sam LaPorta had three catches for 71 yards and a touchdown in a 24-3 win at Purdue.
Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

Tight end Luke Lachey

LaPorta is making his mark as one of the best tight ends in Iowa history, with 139 receptions for 1,586 yards. He’ll need 240 yards over Iowa’s final stretch to pass Marv Cook (1,825) as the program’s all-time leader in tight-end receiving yards. Lachey’s young career is at 20 catches for 324 yards after Saturday, but the redshirt sophomore continues to ascend and looks like a potential rock star as the No. 1 tight end in 2023.

Lachey’s blocking really stood out Saturday. While LaPorta was catching a 16-yard touchdown pass early in the second quarter, Lachey’s pass protection on the left side on a rollout left was imperative. Later, on an outside-right Johnson run toward the goal line, Lachey (6-6, 252) powered 260-pound senior linebacker Scotty Humpich completely out of the play. Lachey had a 67.2 run-blocking grade, which was higher than all but two Iowa offensive linemen Saturday (Richman, Jack Plumb).

Defensive tackle Aaron Graves

With Logan Lee exiting with what appeared to be a right-leg injury in the first quarter (he did return), Graves was called upon for a season-high 29 snaps. And the true freshman’s arrow keeps pointing up.

Although he was unblocked on a second-quarter run to Devin Mockabee, Graves had the wherewithal and athleticism to surge upfield and dive to grab Devin Mockabee’s ankle and bring him down for a 6-yard loss. Graves also had a nice bull rush upfield on third-and-goal from Iowa's 2, helping to cause O'Connell to roll right and get thrown down by Iowa's Lukas Van Ness for a 15-yard sack.

Van Ness, who was recently pegged as the No. 25 NFL Draft prospect by The Athletic's Dane Brugler, also would be a major future building block for the Hawkeyes if he chooses to return for his redshirt junior season.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 28 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.