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Overreaction Monday: Punched in the Gut

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The 17-10 loss at the hands of the Spartans left a bad taste in the mouth of many Hawkeye fans. Was it a death blow or just a punch to the gut?

NCAA Football: Iowa at Michigan State
There were so many “what could have been” moments on Saturday. What can still be this season?
Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

You guys, I just can’t. I can’t do this anymore. Ugh. That was.... yuck. Seriously, that was brutal. Like, everything about it. I don’t even know where to start. I mean, I guess I’ll start with the why.

I think any Hawkeye fan with a pair if eyeballs could aee yesterday didn’t go well. What’s most frustrating to me is that I somehow let myself get my hopes up. I walked out of Kinnick last week feeling like this team let one slip away, but also showing me another thing to be optimistic about.

Up to last week, I felt like each week had shown me something new. Against Wyoming, the defense looked very good with the exception of maybe 2-3 plays. Against Iowa State, the defense got sliced and diced, but the offense showed more firepower than I have seen in some time at Iowa. Then, after messing around for a half against North Texas, I saw the run game actually get going the way I expected it to all season.

While no performance was perfect, I saw building blocks. Which is why I felt so good after PSU. Sure it was a loss. And yes the defense gave up a ton of yardage, but they kept the points off the board and we went to the wire with the #4 team in the country. We always talk about Kirk Ferentz-coached teams building momentum and finishing the year better than they start. I felt like maybe we were going to see this team put it all together and start building that momentum.

That wishful thinking was flushed down the tubes almost immediately Saturday. Michigan State’s opening drive looked a lot like Iowa State looked against the Iowa defense. There were chunk plays down field, a solid push from their offensive line, and WRs sitting wide open in the holes of the Iowa zone.

Now, our friend Jordan Hansen tells us we can blame whoever we want for the loss this weekend. But I disagree. You can’t blame the defense. For the second week in a row, I felt like they did their part. Sure, they gave up a ton of yards last week. And yes, they spotted Sparty an early 7 Saturday. But overall, they have looked about as you would expect a solid Iowa defense to look at this point in the season, and they are looking much better than I thought they might following the ISU debacle and the first half of the North Texas game.

Outside of the defense though, there’s plenty of blame to go around. Let’s start with special teams. Specifically, the punting game. You know, where Iowa has become known round the world for winning. Well, folks, punting ain’t winning anymore. The Hawkeyes have been killed by the field position game the last two weeks. Colten Rastetter is averaging 39.7 yards per punt this season, which doesn’t sound terrible, but completely masks what we all see when we watch. The average is boosted mightily by favorable bounces on the punts which go un-fielded, making up for the generally short punts with poor hang time. Where Iowa used to count on being able to flip the field on opponents, we now see opposing offenses with short fields and our own offense facing incredibly long ones.

Iowa v Michigan State
The defense looked very good outside of 2 drives Saturday. One of those was aided by an incredibly short field. Again.
Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

As much as that isn’t ideal, it might not be so bad if the offense for the last two weeks looked anything like it did the first three. You know, those three games where Iowa averaged 33 points a game and did whatever it took to win? Where the hell did that offense go? During that stretch, we saw new offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz break nearly every tendency Kirk and staff had put together for 18 years. We saw throws out of heavy personnel packages, passes on first down and shots down the field. Defenses stacked the box and the offense made them pay by betting on their new QB and a bunch of very young WRs.

Since then? Since then we look like a team playing not to lose. We look like a team working it’s tail off to keep games close, forcing a game plan on our opponent, even if it is painfully obvious to everyone (including the staff) that the game plan won’t work. I get that last week against a Penn State team ranked inside the top 5. That’s been a recipe for success under Kirk Ferentz in those types of games. But that makes NO sense against a Michigan State team who is in the same universe as Iowa athletically.

Perhaps the most maddening part about it is that it didn’t start that way. We saw the variety this offense can use the first couple weeks and even the first series of the day. It didn’t end perfectly, but we saw the Hawkeyes come out and get a first down throwing it a few times early. The real trouble started when the field position went south on that second possession.

Pinned inside the 10, Brian did what every Iowa OC under KF has ever done - he run a stretch play on first down. But the word is out on this run game. Get vertical pressure and press the play to the boundary. And they did. Fine. I like coming back to the pass on second down and it’s tough to blame BF for a drop by Wadley, but why do you come back with a run on 3rd and 12? Short field for the opposing offense again and now you’re in a hole.

NCAA Football: Iowa at Michigan State
Easley was one recipient of a deep ball Stanley didn’t over-throw Saturday. One of few.
Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Now, I’m OK with the play-calling on the ensuing possession. You move the chains with a screen, you take a shot, and then you come out in an empty look. Things didn’t work out as Stanley overshot his WR (I still don’t know why he threw to MVB instead of a guy who’s faster to actually run under some of these bombs) but he took the shot and actually moved the chains again with the throw to Fant. So we go into the second quarter with 2 series where I feel OK about things and one stinker. The defense already spotted MSU 7 and the stinker costs another 7. It’s a tough spot to be in, but not insurmountable if you respond.

And would you look at that! A deep ball to ISM and you know what, not even Stanley can over-throw the speedy freshman. Your reward for mixing things up, taking some shots and actually throwing the ball? Open space inside the 10 and a TD run for Akrum Wadley. That wasn’t so bad, was it?

That’s where the good news ended. From there on out it was a lot of runs into the teeth of a loaded box, overthrown passes downfield, dropped passes in the shorter passing game and general blandness (with the exception of that first second half drive, fake field goal included). I’ll grant Brian that the mistakes and the terrible field position don’t help. The fluke fumble/interception/WTF did I just see from Stanley inside the 10 is brutal, but you gotta find some answers here.

Give me a look at one of the other RBs on some of these dives and stretch plays. Wadley is best in space and Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin have shown the ability to run hard in a straight line. Give me more of those quick little passes to Wadley like we saw right out of the gates to start the second half. But most of all, give me some fight out of this offensive line.

More than anything else, watching and re-watching this game Saturday highlights how much the offensive line for Iowa really dictates what the offense can and can’t do. And I think this is where a lot of the blame lies. The pass protection has been decent thus far, but the run blocking has been absolutely atrocious. There is no space for a guy like Wadley to operate and not enough flow to create cut-back lanes. That’s where Wadley can really do his damage, but with no push up front and defenses crashing down field, he is stuffed before he can even get it going. It’s an issue we aren’t used to seeing with an Iowa offense and it’s a major concern.

NCAA Football: Iowa at Michigan State
Wadley had little room to operate Saturday. That seems to be a theme this season.
Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

I do think putting a more straight-ahead runner might help a bit. Wadley is known to do more dancing in the backfield than most, and his talents give him some leash there. But there’s nowhere to go. If the OL isn’t going to get any sort of push, I don’t really know what Brian can do to give them some room outside of abandoning the run game we’ve come to know and, uh, love.

I guess you can work in more short passes, preferably some more options than simply the bubble screen to Easley or MVB. This is where you put IKM in the backfield and flex Wadley out. This is where you work the hell out of Fant in the slot. This is where you burn someone on a blitz where they’ve got nobody more than 8 yards deep by throwing right at it. And as BoilerHawk pointed out to the rest of the BHGP staff, this is where you run play-action out of a zone look.

If you can’t get some relief for this line and defenses are going to keep throwing you 8-9 man fronts with the front 7 all within 4 yards of the LOS, you have to just give it up and go full on Big 12 football. You have the weapons on the outside to make it work if you have to, Stanley has the tools and the OL has looked much better in pass protection than run blocking.

At the end of the day, this whole thing was just a giant punch in the gut. For the second straight week. There’s blame to go all around, but really it’s still a game we should have had in the W column even with all the issues above. The play-calling could have been better, but the more I watch it the more I don’t hate it. The offensive line still stinks at run blocking, but they continue to do enough in pass protection to give us hope. The defense had some lapses, but they look like a group that will keep us in every game. Stanley had some tough misses, but still looked pretty decent to me.

Iowa v Michigan State
I don’t know what this was, but it cost the Hawkeyes points.
Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

The Hawkeyes just killed themselves with mistake after mistake at really inopportune times. There was the... whatever that was by Stanley that likely cost Iowa 7, but definitely 3. There was the Smith fumble with Iowa inside the MSU 40 and finally getting something going. That likely cost another 3. And sprinkled in were a slew of holding, face mask and pass interference penalties. There were dropped passes, missed deep balls, really brutal field position and some incredibly stupid decisions (looking at you, Josh Jackson on that last punt return).

And yet, Iowa had a chance to come down and extend this thing until the very end of the game. It was a punch in the gut. A loss that should have been a win against a team that may or may not make a bowl game this year. One that got away, that we’ll circle as a “what-could’ve-been” when we look back on the season.

But it wasn’t a death blow. This team has the tools to do better. Brian Ferentz has shown us earlier this year that he can do better. The offensive line has shown us they can pass protect and given us glimpses they can do better in the run game. I think this is a team that can embody what we think of as a typical Kirk Ferentz team, finishing better than they start.

I hope they can find a way to turn this into a year like 2008 where some early season losses by one possession turn into late wins and momentum building into a historic season the following year. I pray this isn’t a year like 2007 where those losses just keep piling up and the corner never gets turned. If ever it were to happen, this is the week it would. Illinois is really not good. If the Hawkeyes can get things rolling this week, they’ll need to keep the momentum rolling despite a bye week coming up. That should be plenty of time to recover from the punch to the gut. Can the fanbase recover as well?

We’re 3-2. It’s a get-right week. Let’s get right. Go Hawks.