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Is Rome Really Burning?

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Let’s take a moment to really take stock of where the Hawkeyes are right now

Something’s rotten in Denmark... errr... Kinnick

If you’re anything like me, one of the things that’s been so evident and overbearing about this season has been the utter frustration that it has brought. I wanted to stop and see if I could figure out just what has made it mind-boggling and if there is anything left of this season worth holding on to and hoping for.

We had a lot of reasons to be be optimistic for 2016, setting the stage for our Icarus-like let-down.

  1. Iowa was supposed to be really good this year. After a historic 12-2 2015 season and a long-overdue trip to the Rose Bowl, many (myself included) expected a 9-win regular season to be the bare minimum. Sure, we were embarrassed by the way we played against Stanford and disappointed that we could not stop a ludicrously long drive by MSU to wrestle the lead away from Iowa in the Big Ten Conference Championship. But undefeated in the regular season is a rare thing, even for the Alabamas of the world.
  2. We had a talented, athletic, NFL-caliber quarterback returning as a senior for 2016. C.J. Beathard had reached nearly mythical status by the end of 2015, with hopes for a dark horse Heisman candidacy once he regained his health. And since he was only losing two senior receivers and one tight end, he would have plenty of up-and-coming athletes like Noah Fant, Jay Scheel, and George Kittle to target.
  3. All five 2016 starters on the O-line had been starters in 2015 at some point. How’s that for offensive line depth? Youth AND experience in the trenches was exciting. Even though we’d seen the line get manhandled by the likes of Shilique Calhoun, they would all come back bigger, stronger, faster and more experienced.
  4. LeShun Daniels AND Akrum Wadley manning the backfield. ‘Nuff said. Thunder and Lightning carrying the mail would keep defenses stacking the box against us, letting CJB air mail some deep bombs to Jerminic Smith and Jay Scheel. It was the perfect storm.
  5. Desmond King. Period.

Saying that we had high expectations for the season is probably an understatement. And with our lofty dreams, we were ill-prepared for the reality that set in during week three.

NCAA Football: North Dakota State at Iowa
The game against the Bison told us everything we needed to know about Iowa football in 2016.
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

We learned a few things. Or we should have. Maybe all of us didn’t see the signs. North Dakota State showed us that Iowa was not as physically talented as it should have been. Against an FCS foe, Iowa was unable to establish any sort of leverage at the line of scrimmage. Receivers were unable to find any space or create any separation with the exception of Matt VandeBerg. In fact, in many cases, MVB was simply able to out-hustle or out-muscle smaller defensive backs or was willing to put his body on the line in the middle of the field. His receptions were not commonly because he was wide open. He was just that reliable. After losing him for the season and Kittle going in and out with injuries, the only viable options in the passing game disappeared, leaving defenses free to spend all day watching the backfield and selling out against Iowa’s running backs.

That’s when we learned something else. This offensive line lacks tackles. They are all interior linemen. As a result, with teams clogging the box, athletes like Akrum Wadley found that they rarely had any blocking downfield when they bounced outside and screen passes often failed to isolate the receiver against a lone defender. In short, Iowa is porous up the middle and unable to get any sort of push to the edges.

Meanwhile, even as defense started to look better and better, they were still susceptible to interior rushes, which was uncharacteristic of the Hawkeyes. And when Iowa finally did seem to close down the middle against Penn State this past weekend, Saquon Barkley made his hay on the outside, making Iowa’s linebackers and safeties look like uncoordinated children trying to chase down a greyhound. Even Desmond King, quite possibly the best defensive back in the country, was unable to pay full attention to his coverage, leaving his receivers open far more often than he had in previous weeks.

Iowa v Penn State
TLDR: Nothing went right for Iowa against PSU. A microcosm of the 2016 season.
Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

So what do we have to lose? The short answer is “not much.” But there are a few things on the line that still matter this season.

  1. There is still technically an outside chance that Iowa can win the West. They need to win out and they need some help from Wisconsin and Minnesota. If Minnesota loses one more game and Wisconsin drops two and Iowa wins out, Iowa can win the B1G West.
  2. Recruiting. Giving up on a season when you’re still above .500 is a sign of a culture in decline. Recruits will see that. And while it has not (ostensibly) hurt the Hawks yet with this recruiting class, it has the potential to if the mood gets any more dour. Finishing strong can keep the promising 2017 class from beginning to hemorrhage.
  3. A bowl game is more important for a developmental, young program like Iowa is. Those extra practices in an environment where you have a chance to take some risks and play new faces without much in the way of repercussions can help identify replacements and areas of focus heading into the next season.

So where do we go from here? Well, let’s get a few things out of the way, first.

  1. Kirk Ferentz isn’t going anywhere any time soon unless he decides to retire early. I’ve seen a few “fans” stating that they won’t be watching Iowa football any more until he is gone. See you folks in ten years. And remember this: we’re frustrated and angry because we might not make 6-6. Purdue has not had a 6+ win season since 2012 (and it was only 6). Maryland has only had 9 in the last 20 years. Same with Rutgers. Minnesota averages 6.1 wins per season in the last 20 years, meaning that they basically average a .500 season. Illinois has had only 6 .500 or better regular seasons in two decades. Since Ferentz took the helm at Iowa he has had only 3 sub 6-win seasons, and two of those were his first two seasons as coach. For reference, that’s one fewer sub-.500 season than Hayden Fry had in his 20 years as coach.
  2. Greg Davis’ job is likely in question after this season. As both the quarterbacks coach and OC, he has failed to produce a year-over-year improvement with the same quarterback at the helm. While he was at Texas, his success came when he was working with an offensive line that was built for speed, not for trench warfare. Additionally, his system required athletes on the edge, allowing the short horizontal passing attack function like a run-and-gun approach which was successful with quarterbacks like McCoy and Applewhite. And I don’t think GD can take credit for Vince Young. He would have found a way to excel in any offensive system in college. But Iowa, which is primarily a zone-blocking, run-first, play-action team, is set up to entice opposing teams to stack the box to stop the run, meaning horizontal passing schemes are often throwing right into the teeth of a defense. Greg Davis is not a good fit for Iowa under Kirk Ferentz. And since Ferentz isn’t going anywhere, GD might.
  3. The defense is not the problem this year. They are simply on the field for far too long in any given game. No defense is able to hold up to constantly having to be on the field for 70-80 plays per game (see the entire Big 12 as evidence). Iowa’s faltering and floundering offense this season is forcing the defense to put in overtime. While this is sustainable for a handful of games in a season, it is not when every game goes that way.
Iowa v Penn State
He’s not going anywhere.
Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

And this is where we get to the root cause of our frustration. There is almost no likelihood of anything changing dramatically between now and the final game against Nebraska. The Iowa we saw on Saturday is the same Iowa we will see next weekend and the weekend after that and in December/January. The game against Penn State was really the last point in the season in which Iowa could retool and make major alterations. It didn’t. And it won’t. There is no solution to the problems plaguing this season. And because we’re all fans of the Hawks, we want to know that there is a solution, a cure, to whatever is ailing the team. But this isn’t exactly like a sinus, where you take an antibiotic and it’s cured. This is more like the flu. There is no cure. We can only wait it out and sleep it off. But like the flu, this is temporary, and the best way to manage it is to drink plenty of fluids (I hear that beer is particularly effective) and keep your mind occupied with other things (FYI: basketball is here). But don’t give up on the Hawkeyes, because the fat lady ain’t singin’ just yet.