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Penn State 13, Iowa 3: The Song Is No Longer The Same

There was a lot of this on Saturday.  <em>A lot</em>.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
There was a lot of this on Saturday. A lot. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
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Apologies for the tardiness of this recap.  Two weeks ago, I said that if you worked at it, you could probably wring four quarters -- or one full game -- of good play out of Iowa's first four games.  Sadly, after five games, that statement still seems true.  This is not yet a good football team.  They have seven games left to prove otherwise.

* Who am I?  Who are we?  This team has no identity.  Is it a spread passing team?  Is it a power running team?  Is it a defensive juggernaut content to scrape by with whatever it can muster on offense?  Well, the latter description is obviously untrue, but we'll get to the defense more in an upcoming bullet point.  It's stating the obvious, but good football teams have distinct identities.  Alabama will use its defense to smother you like a boa constrictor, then pound away with a punishing ground game and an effective play-action passing game.  Boise will spread you out and let Kellen Moore dissect you with uncanny accuracy.  Oregon will run the same handful of plays over and over and over -- but from a dizzying array of formations and looks, and at a head-spinning pace.  And so on.  Good Iowa teams have also had distinct identities.  The 2002 team had a high-powered, immaculately balanced offense.  The 2004 team had a (mostly) airtight defense and a surprisingly (for Iowa) wide-open aerial attack.  The 2008 team had another (mostly) airtight defense, this time married to a potent ground game led by the greatest running back performance in Iowa history.  The 2009 team combined a playmaking, stingy defense with a schizophrenic offense with flashes of briliance (and a heaping dose of good fortune).

Through five games, the 2011 Iowa football team has no identity.  It's pretty apparent that it can't be a strong defensive team -- the horses for that simply aren't there -- which means an identity is going to come from the offensive side of the ball.  Unfortunately, what we have there is still a muddle.  Between an offensive line returning four players with starting experience (and five if Nolan MacMillan could ever get healthy) and a bruising running back coming off a sparkling Insight Bowl performance, we entered the season thinking this Iowa offense would more closely resemble the 2008 team and that a powerful ground game would pave the way for everything else.  Unfortunately, Iowa is averaging 140 rushing yards a game -- good for 70th in the country.  We are, at best, an average rushing team now, between an offensive line that is surprisingly (I think?) inconsistent at run blocking and the fact that Marcus Coker has been injured and/or tentative (not to mention the fact that the coaches are deathly afraid of letting anyone but Coker tote the rock against an opponent with a pulse).

After the fourth quarter of the Pitt game and most of the ULM game, it seemed like we'd hit on a different possible identity, though: a passing team with a potent no-huddle shotgun attack.  Except we wondered if that was something we saw only out of desperation and a willingness to experiment more against weaker opponents and that it would be back to "same ol', same ol'" for the Penn State game (and perhaps all of the Big Ten schedule).  Survey says... still a bit inconclusive.  To the coaches' credit, they did seem to try to utilize the no-huddle attack that had been so effective in the early going against Penn State -- they utilized it frequently on the game's opening drive.  But they didn't stick with it consistently, either.  Of course, that was due in part to a few things going on in the game itself: on offense, the receivers were having trouble making catches (and Vandenberg was having accuracy issues to exacerbate the receivers' problems) and the defense was having trouble getting off the field (meaning it was imperative that the offense stay on the field for a bit to give them a rest).  Still, Iowa's ungainly shifting between offensive styles on Saturday was clearly ineffective (um, 3 points, hello); Iowa needs to find a style that works and stick with it.  In order to win in the Big Ten, Iowa must score points -- and likely a lot of them (I'm thinking at least 25-35 points a game) with the state of this defense.

* The defense has been sacked.  Speaking of... In many circumstances, only conceding 13 points (and only six through the first three and a half quarters) would be cause for celebration and the distribution of hearty "Attaboys" for the defensive players.  In this case, it's the latest evidence that stats can lie.  Yes, Iowa gave up only 13 points, but anyone who watched the game would laugh at you and call you a crazy person if you tried to argue that the Iowa defense played well.  They allowed Penn State to amass almost 400 yards of offense (including 231 yards on the ground) and dominate time of possession (34:54 to 24:06).  TOP can be a massively overrated statistic, but in this case it's useful because it indicates just how well Penn State was able to bludgeon our defense into submission.  The only reason Penn State didn't score more points is because (a) their red zone offense is ghastly, (b) Matt McGloin is prone to fits of sheer idiocy (the end zone INT he threw to Micah Hyde was a mind-numbingly bad decision -- and an even worse throw), (c) their red zone offense is ghastly, (d) JoePa very clearly tried to stop scoring after they finally got a touchdown, and (e) their red zone offense is ghastly.  (Seriously: I have no idea why they didn't simply run straight into the middle of our defense every single time they were in the red zone.)

To be fair, red zone woes aside, this was a better-looking Penn State offense than the one on display in their milk-curdling displays against Temple, Indiana, etc.  Their offensive line was getting an impressive push (they certainly looked motivated to make a difference this year after getting pwned by Iowa the last few years), and Silas Redd and Curtis Dukes were quick, powerful, and decisive runners on Saturday.  In the first half, they were also a rather lucky offense, as evidenced by the slightly ridiculous amount of deflected passes that wound up in the hands of Penn State players and led to solid (or even big) gains.  That said, much of the blame still has to go on an Iowa defense that offered all the resistance of a paper towel for too much of the game: the gooey-soft interior of Iowa's defense was repeatedly abused, particularly on the drive where Penn State clinched the victory with a touchdown.  It didn't seem to matter who was in for Iowa on the defensive line for much of the day -- they rotated liberally (at one point, all four second-team linemen were in the game), all with largely the same results.  (That said, can we end the "Dominic Alvis at DT" experiment now?  It doesn't work -- at all.  He offers something as a DE, but very little as a  DT.)  Iowa's linebackers weren't really that much better -- they missed a disturbing number of tackles -- but when the defensive line is regularly getting pushed backwards 3-5 yards on every play, there's only so much they can do to stop the bleeding.

Iowa's inability to get pressure on the quarterback once again reared its ugly head, which is particularly damning with a dynamic dysfunctional duo like McGloin and Bolden, who in the past have been all too happy to give the ball away when pressured.  This defensive line simply cannot get pressure on their own.  This is something Norm seems to realize to an extent -- he once again blitzed more than usual in this game and brought blitzes from unusual sources (Micah Hyde and Jordan Bernstine both had effective blitzes during the game).  We just need to see more of that if we want to have any prayer of getting a pass rush this year.  Really, we should take a few cues from Norm's Penn State counterpart, Tom Bradley.  Penn State typically runs a similar defense to Iowa's -- a lot of zone coverage and pressure from the defensive line.  But that was not what we saw against Penn State on Saturday -- especially in the second half.  After the game, Bradley noted that he dialed up a lot more blitzes (particularly in the second half) than normal, because he wanted to get Vandenberg out of his comfort zone.  Mission accomplished.  Hopefully Iowa was taking notes. 

* The Schizophrenic Mister Vandenberg.  And speaking of Vandy... after five quarters of Very Good Vandy, Saturday brought another reappearance of Bad Vandy.  Vandenberg looked ill at ease for much of the game, even moreso when the blitzes started coming regularly.  By the end of the game he just looked fried, so it was no shock that the sacks and interceptions started to pile up.  He still struggles to identify and handle blitzes, which is concerning since this is 7th start.  That's something Iowa needs to fix in a hurry -- whether it means calling more screens and quick slants or teaching the receivers how to run a hot route (and Vandy how to throw it to them).  (Another thing he needs to fix?  Staring down receivers.  Part of the reason Penn State defensive backs were able to break up so many plays was because they could see where the ball was going.)  This game also drove home the fact that Vandenberg is, more than any other quarterback at Iowa in recent memory, a rhythm passer.  When he's in the flow, he's almost unstoppable (see: 4th quarter of the Pitt game).  When he's not, he's very stoppable.  In fact, he's a goddamn mess.  Stanzi had a knack (at least early in his career) for flushing bad plays and pulling out sterling passes late in the game after throwing any number of horrible passes earlier; see the 2008 Penn State game or the 2009 Michigan State game.  Vandenberg doesn't seem to have that gift. 

* Bad offense?  Good defense?  The one sliver of good news coming out of this game -- and the one reason to still have a shred or two of hope for the offense -- is that the Penn State defense might very well be the best defense Iowa plays all year (depending on how much you believe in Michigan State's defense, which is currently very highly-ranked).  Per Stewart Mandel:

The Nittany Lions now boast the nation's fourth-ranked pass efficiency defense (89.81) and fourth-ranked total defense (250.8 yards per game).

That's not too shabby.  Iowa's upcoming slate of defenses includes Northwestern, Indiana, and Minnesota.  This is going to come as quite a shock, I'm sure, but they are not among the nation's leaders in defense this year.  At least on paper, these matchups look like precisely what the doctor ordered for an Iowa offense that looked woeful in the extreme on Saturday. 

* Punting is losing.  Eric Guthrie was once again pretty good for Iowa -- four of his punts were fielded inside the 20 and he was able to pin Penn State very deep on at least one occasion -- but at least one of his punts should have never happened.  I speak, of course, of the punt on Iowa's opening drive when Iowa got to the PSU 33, faced 4th and 8... and punted.  That Guthrie was able to pin PSU on their own 10-yard line (a solid accomplishment) is irrelevant.  Punting from the other team's 33-yard line is A FUCKING STUPID AND TERRIBLE IDEA.  I don't even need statistics to back me up on that one (although they would).  Even if Ferentz didn't want to try to convert on fourth down (4th and 8 isn't easy, obviously), why not give Mike Meyer a crack at a field goal?  It was a beautiful day, the ball was lined up near the middle of the field, and Meyer has made 50+ yard field goals in the past (this year, in fact).  But no.  Ferentz gave a vote of "no confidence" to both Meyer and his offense on that play.  Iowa probably deserved to lose the game for that decision alone.  Of course, JoePa was determined to out-conservative -- or out-dumb -- Ferentz; he punted three times from the Iowa side of the field, including late in the game on 4th and 2 from the Iowa 36.  If he really didn't think his offense could rip off a two-yard gain against a gassed and reeling Iowa defense, I... I just have no words for the level of neanderthal football thinking on display in this game.

Of course, that coaching blunder on Ferentz's part might be narrowly eclipsed by the decision to eschew running a two-minute offense upon getting the ball at the Iowa 20 with two timeouts and 1:42 to go before halftime.  God forbid we try to score there.  It's not like we don't have a no huddle offense that's been effective this year or a kicker with decent range.  Nope.