Maybe the only factor that I should have written about on Thursdays was learning from past mistakes. I actually think Iowa did improve in a some areas over last year, but in the end it was the same old stuff that brought Iowa down. It felt just like the Purdue game, just like the CMU game, just like so many other games from last year. Things were going decently, then the offense stalled, the D gave up a long pass, a fake punt led to another score, and we knew the ending of the story before we got to the climax.
Saturday night I was incredibly frustrated and couldn't see past the reasons Iowa lost. But Sunday morning the sun was a little brighter and I felt a little better about what I saw in Kinnick. The offense showed in the second quarter and on their one scoring drive in the second half that it can have a balanced running attack. The defense was effective against the run and was disruptive with its blitzing. There were some good things...
But ultimately though, Iowa didn't do enough on any of the four factors to win the game.
Run into a smaller box
The running game was one of the more bright spots on Saturday. While it wasn't super effective, it was a solid enough base that the offense should have been able to build on. Mark Weisman hit the century mark and averaged 5 yards per carry. Damon Bullock added 76 on his own. And even Jake Rudock looked good on his couple of keepers and added 20 yards and a TD. Iowa finished with over 200 yards on the ground. That sounds like a winning recipe.
However, Iowa did not do a good job of opening up the running game by using other plays to take defenders out of the box. There was no lateral movement. No motion in the backfield before the snap. No jet sweeps. It took almost the entire game before Rudock kept it on a read option, though it looked like it was open for him to take off a few time earlier. There was very little play action. And the deep shots down the field were more just gimmick plays, rather than having 12-15 yard routes part of the base offense.
The majority of Iowa's runs were once again telegraphed and into a stacked box. Rudock did a pretty good job of calling audibles for runs into the weaker part of NIU's defense. But it still seemed too often that a linebacker run blitzing met the running back right in the hole leaving the back to fall forward for a short gain.
So as a result, while the run game was solid, it was never explosive. The longest run of the day was just 15 yards.
There were a few positive things though... Iowa actually did throw the ball down the field. The flea-flicker was nice (if only it wasn't under-thrown) and Damond Powell proved that he can be a deep threat (though why take that shot on 3rd-and-1 when you are averaging 5 yards per carry with Weisman?...more on that later). I also like the Weisman/Bullock combo. Iowa used them together in the backfield, split Bullock out wide, rotated them. It was good and something to build on.
Establish an offensive identity
The identity is starting to get set as just a crappy offense, but that's not exactly what I was hoping for. I will say that things were better. The zone read is a thing and it was used quite a bit. The horizontal passing (WR screens) does kind of pair with it when defenders are cheating inside. And having a QB that is a threat to run every now and then should help open things up. And the no-huddle is a go.
That said, I still don't think Greg Davis and Kirk Ferentz have figured out how to meld their two philosophies together. The tight ends are underutilized (that C.J. Fiedorowicz touchdown was a thing of beauty...but where was that later in the game?) and other than the flea-flicker the passing game didn't really take advantage of NIU's 8 defenders in the box.
The game plan for most of the second half was painful. Run the ball a few times and then try to hit a long pass to score. The third down play calling was the biggest problem. Let's take a full look:
- 3rd-and-2: Incomplete pass to Don Shumpert. Was this his drop? I can't remember. But I think I've seen enough from Powell and Smith than I don't need to see Shumpert again.
- 3rd-and-1: Quick snap before Jordan Cotton was set. Ugh.
- 3rd-and-6: Incomplete to Cotton.
- 3rd-and-1: Deep pass misses Powell. It looked like he slowed up and maybe could have gotten there if he ran full speed the whole way.
- 3rd-and-8: Dropped screen pass. Bullock had some room, but I'm not 100% sure he would have picked up the first down.
- 3rd-and-1: Rudock up the middle on a sneak for the only conversion.
- 3rd-and-3: Incomplete to Bullock.
- 3rd-and-9: Screen to Kevonte Martin-Manley for a 1 yard gain. Sigh.
So, 5 of those third downs were a short distance and ZERO of them were a run by a running back. Remember the winning play last year? It was a run on third down. It would have worked again. Iowa didn't have a single negative rushing play and Weisman averaged 5 yards per carry without any long runs. He could have picked up a 3rd-and-2.
Anyway, as a result, the offense only put up 3 points in the second half when a single TD would have put the game away. It was bad.
So you can point to the fake punt (which as much as you may want to complain about Iowa being unprepared for it, they totally were prepared with punt safe and they actually recognized the play right away and were just out executed--to be overly Ferentzy) and the broken coverage in the secondary, but what lost Iowa the game was the complete lack of an offense in the second half (and first quarter, I suppose). The offense account for just 20 points (only 1 better than last year's average), turned the ball over 3 times leading to 9 NIU points including the game winning FG. That's a net 11 points for the offense, which isn't going to win many games.
Take advantage of depth
So it turned out to be hot, but not Anna Kendrick hot on Saturday. I paid to move seats under the pressbox this year so thankfully was in the shade the whole afternoon. I feel sorry for those poor soles in the east stands. I have been there and feel your sweaty, sun-burnt pain.
Anyway, the depth thing maybe didn't play out as much as I thought it would. Both teams seemed really well conditioned and other than a few signed on some cramping and fatigued, thought they handled the heat really well. I do think Iowa's secondary got a little worn out and injuries obviously played a role in their undoing, but other than that Iowa pretty much went with their starters and a little rotation along the D-line and some different personnel packages on offense.
I do think, though, that Iowa failed to take advantage of their ability to pound the ball in the second half. Just when I felt like they might actually be wearing down the defense, Davis would dial up a pass, that would ultimately fall harmlessly incomplete. The most effective drives throughout the game were the ones that were the run heaviest. Iowa's first scoring drive feature 7 rushes in a row...a healthy dose of Weisman and Bullock taking turns. No surprise, it was super effective. The second scoring drive was the flea-flicker, but the 3rd had 6 rushes, and the fourth had 7 with 6 of those consecutive.
I think I told my brother about 50 times on Saturday, "Just run it to the left!!" Because Brandon Scherff, besides the brief time he sat out, was creating some good push. Iowa averaged nearly 6 ypc running to the left, while just 4 to the right and a touch over 4 up the middle.
The obvious one
And here I was worried about Jordan Lynch running all over the Hawkeyes. He had one 11 yard gain, but was completely shut down otherwise. On 22 carries he averaged just 2.5 yards. Iowa did well against the run all afternoon for the most part. If you take out the rushing yards from the fake punt, the D only allowed 121 yards on 41 carries.
But alas, the forward pass was invented some 100 years ago, and limiting Lynch's rushing was not good enough. While last year Lynch struggled to complete a pass, he had a very good day against Iowa's secondary on Saturday. There were a couple of coverage breakdowns, and just some man coverage that wasn't good enough that led to long TD passes for Lynch. He was also able to pick on backup, and
true freshman walk on, Gavin Smith at corner in the second half when Jordan Lomax was out.
Part of the problem was the lack of a pass rush. I think that was partly by design. The D-line looked like they were playing contain a lot, which did work on keeping Lynch from scrambling. But he had time to sit back and find open receivers. Iowa actually did blitz often and it was pretty effective. Though there were no sacks to show for it, the blitzes often led to an incomplete or short pass.
Iowa's offense put up 202 yards rushing and Rudock threw for 256 more. That's a good 70 some yards more than Iowa's average output last year (though some of that was the final play of the game where NIU was giving up some free yards). In the first half, Iowa had 302 yards of total offense...an explosion by our standards!
But still, the offense only put up 20 points (which is not any better than last year) and game up short when the game was on the line. Until the offense can show improvement and consistency, Iowa remains a bad team and will not win many games. I think there is a chance for that improvement...but it's going to be a I'll believe it when I see it sort of thing.