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Overreaction Monday: Iowa Football Isn’t Fun Anymore

Saturday’s loss to the Northwestern Wildcats was both boring and frustrating for Hawkeye fans. Is Iowa football fun?

Iowa v Northwestern
Nothing about Saturday was fun for anyone.
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

If you’re here, I assume you watched at least a portion of Saturday’s game against Northwestern. Maybe not. Maybe you had other stuff going on and you caught wind of the result and avoided watching. Consider yourself lucky. That was just terrible. All around not fun, not entertaining, not good football.

I suppose our first clue things would be rough should have come when we learned both Brandon Snyder and Josey Jewell would be out for the game, but much like HelloJerry, I was expecting to see this Iowa team come out of their bye week with a bit a fire, some renewed passion and focus on doing the things we’ve come to know and (sometimes) love as being Iowa Football. This wasn’t even close to the case. What we got instead was some of the least fun football I’ve watched over the years. Which is to say that it was really not fun to watch. At all.

I’ll admit, the optimism didn’t immediately wear off. Iowa came out on their first possession and threw it on first down, used the pass to set up the run and had lots of space for running back Akrum Wadley to operate. Just what the doctor ordered. Of course, things stalled out and Iowa failed on a 4th down conversion deep in Northwestern territory, so they ended up with no points.

Not ideal, but with the way the offense seemed to hum along for most of that drive, I felt like we would be OK. The subsequent drive by Northwestern did nothing to change my tune. Actually, to put it more accurately, Northwestern just did nothing in general. The second Iowa possession looked a lot like the first with a good mix of run and pass and they marched down the field. Until they found themselves in the red zone and Nate Stanley took a sack on 3rd and long at the Northwestern 14.

That would set up a Miguel Recinos field goal, which sounds like automatic points. But this is Iowa vs. Northwestern, and of course Recinos had his first and only shank of the season. The defense continued their solid play and at the end of one, I found myself still feeling confident. Sure it was 0-0 and things just felt weird, but Iowa was dominating the game. They had 127 yards of offense in the first quarter compared to Northwestern’s 18 and they completely controlled the clock, owning TOP by a factor of nearly 10-1. This still felt like a game where Iowa was just better than Northwestern.

But they weren’t capitalizing on opportunities and their best stuff was behind them. The offense, after humming along through their first couple possessions, took a major turn for the worst. After piling up those 127 yards in the first quarter, Iowa only eeked out another 185 over the following 3.

Perhaps more frustrating was just how they eeked out those yards. Following the missed FG by Recinos, Iowa had a pair of consecutive 3-and-outs. That was followed by a 1st down play-action pass to Toren Young for a 23-yard pickup, but rather than capitalizing on the big play, Iowa went right back to the run on back-to-back plays for a combined 0 yards. 3rd and 10, while not typically a recipe for success, was flat out disastrous with one of only 4 passes targeted at Akrum Wadley going for a 4 yard loss. Punt.

Just when I was ready to give up, Iowa did what they always do, and pulled me back in. The Hawkeyes came out on their 6th drive and started with another play-action pass on first down. The result? Spectacular.

Iowa went back to the pass on the succeeding first down to get ahead of the chains. Despite a penalty, which is often a drive-killer for the Hawkeyes, Iowa was able to capitalize on the early success of the drive and cap it off with a TD to Noah Fant. You know the only thing missing from the whole drive? A run. That’s right, it was a 4 play, 77-yard drive with 4 straight passes.

The 4 passes were the result of the drive starting just inside the 2:30 mark in the half, not some desire to soften up the defensive front. And in a game where it seemed pretty clear points would be at a premium, we saw the Iowa offensive go back into its shell the remainder of the game. The 5 Iowa possessions in the second half went punt, punt, punt, interception, field goal. Not ideal.

In general, things looked stale. Perhaps more frustrating, the things that seemed to work weren’t exploited and instead, Iowa seemed intent on going back to “their identity.” The result was a complete lack of success on the offensive side of the ball and a football game that was virtually unwatchable unless you were a blogger covering it or a fan stuck in that high school stadium in Evanston.

The second half drive summary against Northwestern is just depressing.
Screen capture via

Look, I’m an admitted Brian Ferentz apologist. I may be the only one around these parts. I think at only 7 games into his tenure, we are too early to be able to truly saddle him with all the blame for the way things look. But he isn’t without blame. Not even close.

My biggest gripe with the play calling is what I saw on first down. On Saturday, Iowa ran on 64% of the time on first down. When running, they averaged 1.6 yards per play (adjusted dowm from 2.3 yards per run for a holding call that negated a 7-yard Wadley gain). When passing on first down, Iowa averaged 14.7 yards per play. That is skewed a bit by the big play to Matt VandeBerg, but the difference is stark.

Opposing defenses know the Hawkeyes are not built to overcome getting behind the chains. They know Iowa will look to pick up 3 or so yards on first down to stay on schedule and fight to get a manageable 3rd down. The problem is, if the opponent know that and sells out to stop Iowa from getting 3 yards on first down, they find yourself in exactly the position they hope to avoid by running on 1st down.

The inverse is also true. By bucking the trend and throwing on first down, Iowa put the defense on its heels. You either get in front of the chains or move them. And more importantly, you soften up the front of the defense enough to give the running backs some chance at success on the ground.

And given the way this ground game has looked through 7 games, God knows they need all the help they can get. As I said in the opening paragraphs, there was some running room the first couple drives. That disappeared as Iowa settled into its tendencies. The space closed and Iowa ended the day averaging 2.7 yards per rush. Unacceptable.

NCAA Football: Iowa at Northwestern
After some running room early, Akrum Wadley was well contained Saturday. Again.
David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

But while I don’t know that Brian Ferentz is consistently putting the offense in the best position to succeed running the ball, he can’t possibly bear all the blame and to say he should is flat out lazy in my opinion. It ignores the putrid run-blocking we continue to see. It’s worth remembering that despite this offensive line returning 4/5 of the starting OL that won the Joe Moore Award a year ago, they lost both 5th year senior OTs early and are starting a true freshman and a RS freshman in their place. Expecting the production to be the same is ridiculous, but what we are seeing is nothing short of brutal.

Something in the middle is not an unfair expectation. We need to see the play calls and designs used to help put these guys in a position to succeed. Utilize misdirection more with counters and traps. Use the downhill pressure theses defenses are getting against them. You have one of the most athletic centers we will ever see in Iowa City. Get him moving and slow down the flow of the defense. Further slow the pressure from opposing linebackers by utilizing quick passes in typical running downs.

The running game isn’t the only problem at the moment. Do I wish Brian would call more passes early in drives? Yes. Have we seen some of those early passes blow up in the offense’s face due to drops? Yes. But they clearly help ease some of the pressure in the running game. Unfortunately, the drops in the passing game are doing this team no favors. They are both untimely, often coming in critical third down situations or in those 1st and 10 moments the staff is just trying to stay in front of the chains.

Beyond the need for more early-down passes, I think we need to see more downfield passes. In total, Iowa only threw 4 passes more than 20 yards downfield on Saturday. Three of those came in the first half and the one in the second half came on the apparent miscommunication between Stanley and ISM. Smith-Marsette seemed to break off his route and sit down with a corner in his pocket and Stanley over-shot him by about 5 yards and threw it right to the safety with help over the top. Bad decision, bad throw, but we need more of those attempts.

We need more of those attempts, we need more of Stanley on the move and we need more work in the middle of the field. A look at that passing chart and you can’t help but see the void over the middle and downfield. When you have wide swaths of the field that don’t need covered, the other areas become much more difficult to work within.

At the end of the day, this one was just tough to take. I felt so confident in this team two drives in. They looked vastly superior to Northwestern, despite coming away with no points. I still don’t think that was an especially good Northwestern team. The Iowa defense, playing without Jewell and Snyder, played very well. There were stretches where they didn’t get much pressure, but overall I didn’t come away with anything I saw from Phil Parker’s bunch.

But the offense continues to leave much to be desired. I suppose that’s what we all should have expected. This is a first year OC, first year OL coach, first year WR coach, first year QB coach, first year (sophomore) QB with a pair of young OTs and a slew of freshmen and sophomores playing significant minutes at the skill positions. Expecting things to be humming along was probably drinking a bit too much of the kool-aid. But we all did it. If you didn’t, I assume you aren’t complaining about what you’ve seen, you should have expected it.

But I suppose as much as we should have all expected the offense to look rough at this point, we also should have expected to be disappointed this weekend. The loss to the Wildcats drops Iowa to 2-8 in road games following a bye under Kirk Ferentz. That number is just brutal. But it’s not new and with all that youth mentioned above, we were all probably being naive to expect anything better than what we got. I think at this point, perhaps we should stop being disappointed and just acknowledge that perhaps this is a young Iowa football team that isn’t very good? It seems Kirk Ferentz has.

Iowa football isn’t fun anymore.