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Overreaction Monday: Iowa Football Showed Me Something on Saturday

Saquon Barkley and the Penn State Nittany Lions set the box score on fire Saturday night, but they barely escaped Kinnick Stadium with a win. What did we learn?

NCAA Football: Penn State at Iowa
Saquon Barkley is an incredible talent, we already knew that. What did we really learn from Saturday’s loss to Penn State?
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

That was gut-wrenching, heart-breaking and borderline soul-crushing. But it was also exhilirating and damn entertaining. The Hawkeyes, of course, came up just short of yet another victory over a top-5 opponent inside Kinnick Stadium. And as devastating as it was for many a fan to have victory within our collective grasps, only to have it stolen away at the very last moment, I would still much rather have that outcome than the one most of the nation and all of Vegas had predicted heading into Saturday’s contest.

See, as much as it doesn’t tend to sting to be completely outmatched and blown out, you don’t really learn anything about your team in such games. I mean, I guess you might learn they flat out stink, but not much else. But Saturday, I felt like we learned something about the mental makeup of this year’s group of Hawkeyes. And I liked what we saw.

If you somehow stumbled upon this without having seen the game, you might be a little confused by that. It’s not something that would show up in the box score. What would show up in the box is a series of eye-popping numbers, every one of them in favor of Penn State.

The first among them, had you told me ahead of the game, I would have guessed a score similar to some of the ridiculous predictions over on Black Shoe Diaries. Penn State ran 99 plays on Saturday night. NINETY-NINE! What’s more, Iowa only ran 55. That sounds like a recipe to be outscored nearly 2-to-1.

NCAA Football: Penn State at Iowa
Trace McSorley had a decent night statistically, but I don’t know that anyone watching thought he played particularly well.
Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

But Iowa, we were told over and over going into the game, was going to play ball-control on offense and limit possessions for this explosive PSU offense. They were going to kill clock and slow things down. Except...they did nothing of the sort. Penn State dominated time of possession at 39:39 to Iowa’s 20:21. That sounds a lot like a complete and utter failure.

What’s worse? The Nittany Lions racked up an absurd 579 total yards on offense - again more than double the 279 yards the Hawkeyes could muster. They averaged 5.8 yards per carry on more than double the rushing attempts Iowa had, converted 75% of their fourth down attempts and had more than 2.5 times the first down conversion. Statistically, this game was dominated by the Penn State Nittany Lions.

And yet, I was there, and you know who appeared to dominate that game? The Iowa defense. Make no mistake, the offense didn’t look great, but that defense looked like the Iowa defenses of days past. This was a classic Norm Parker bend-but-don’t-break showing from a group that had given me a TON of concern after giving up 41 to Iowa State and looking lost for a half against a not good North Texas team.

All those gawdy numbers were met with timely stops, big time sacks, turnovers and blocked field goals. And very few points. It took every last one of the 3,600 seconds on the clock for that vaunted Penn State offense to eek out 21 points - and the offense spotted them 2. They worked from a short field most of the game, with fantastic starting field position a number of times, and yet the defense was able to bow their backs and keep points off the board.

So yeah, we learned something about this team on Saturday night. This defense is legit. They might not be perfect between the 20s. AJ Epenesa is fantastic in the pass rush, but we saw some of the reasons he had been held out up to that point in this one. Our scheme presents a lot of opportunities for mismatches on the edge. Our line in general has had some issues getting pressure and the entire defense has really struggled wrapping up at times. But damn it if this defense doesn’t have a ton of grit and heart and moxy.

Josey Jewell is a man (he’s not 40, but still). And every game I watch him the more I conclude he is THE man. He was all over the place on Saturday, tallying a career-high 16 tackles, 3 TFL, 2 passes defended, a fumble recovery and an interception complete with 33-yard return. The Outlaw is the heart and soul of this defense, and what I saw Saturday night tells me that, not only will he make a hell of a LB for some NFL team next season, this defense is also going to be just fine down the stretch.

The real surprise for me was what I saw on the other sideline. Despite the video game numbers from Saquon Barkley, who finished with 211 rushing yards on 28 carries (7.1 YPC) and 94 receiving yards on 12 catches (7.8 YPC), I came away LESS impressed with the future first-round pick than I was going in.

Did he have crazy numbers? Yes. Did he bust off a couple a couple big plays? Yes. Did he display some of the most incredible athleticism I’ve ever seen live? Well, see for yourself:

But none of that was new. Those were all things I EXPECTED based on everything I had seen and heard of him. What really struck me was just how much Penn State relied on him. He had 40 touches on those 99 offensive plays and accounted for 53% of the total offensive yardage. But watching it live, he WAS the offense.

He lived up to the hype of being incredibly athletic and quick; his ability to stop on a dime is right on par with Akrum Wadley despite the additional size and strength. Penn State really leans on him, to the point I felt like their offense stalled without him on the field. I read a number of things last week praising the talents of James Franklin and the genius of offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead. But I left Kinnick Stadium thinking neither were very talented.

For all those yards, I don’t think they get even close to half of them with just a plain old NFL-caliber RB back there. And with a bonafide superstar in the making, they mustered just 19 offensive points. And a good chunk of those came with starting field position around midfield. There is a reason James Franklin was on the hot seat about this time last season and I think he’ll be right back there within 2 years of Barkley departing for the big time.

I’m sure Joe Moorhead will move on shortly as well, likely to take a head coaching job. I don’t know how he will fare at that, but I honestly was not impressed with the scheme he showed Saturday. It looked a hell of a lot like what we as Iowa fans have come to know as the Iowa beater. He spread us out, got his playmaker in space and did an OK job of putting together route combinations that gave his team a high probability of success. But none of that looks nearly as good without a guy like Barkley leading the way, and you saw that when he came off the field.

And yet, Barkley didn’t show me anything I didn’t already know he could do. What he did show me was a guy who was visibly worn out early and often. The offense leaned on him and he nearly fell over, asking to be taken out in the middle of a series a number of times (and I’m not talking about following big runs). I suppose that’s something that will work itself out when he is focused solely on football.

But the other thing that really stood out to me was how few hits he took. I guess you can say that’s a talent, but I’m not thinking about avoiding the big shots like some wily veteran. I’m talking about noticeably shying away from contact, jumping out of bounds instead of taking on a would-be tackler, falling to the ground in open space instead of fighting for extra yardage. Barkley is an incredibly gifted athlete and is put together as well as any back I’ve seen up close, but the way he finished his runs Saturday was completely shocking to me. If Akrum Wadley can lower a shoulder and tack on an extra yard or two as he races down the sideline, I don’t understand why Saquon Barkley is anxiously hopping out of bounds before anyone gets within a yard of him. That’s not at all what I expected and it’s the only thing from his game that stands out to me as a negative.

On the offensive side of the ball for Iowa, it doesn’t seem like there’s much room for optimism. They only managed 279 yards of offense and more than 100 of that came on the two big scoring plays from Akrum Wadley. First there was this beauty that kept our hopes alive:

And then, as we all started to get our hopes up, Wadley turned the magic up a notch and sent the stadium into a raucous.

While those two plays made up more than a third of Iowa’s offensive production, they are also why I’m not worried about the offense going forward. We read all week about the dangers of playing this amazing Penn State offense. They are notorious for having drives sputter out, but they are explosive and one play can turn a game upside down. The funny thing was, that’s what we saw from Iowa.

The Nittany Lion defense, which is likely the fastest top to bottom the Hawkeyes will face all season, barring potentially a matchup with Michigan in the Big Ten title game or a bowl opponent, was able to bottle up Iowa for more than three full quarters, and then with two lone plays our big time playmaker put us on top with less than two minutes remaining. What other defenses do you think will be able to bottle up this offense the same way? I’ll listen to arguments for Wisconsin and Ohio State, but if you’ve seen any of OSU lately you know it’s not likely coming from them. Wisconsin doesn’t have the same level of talent on defense as PSU, but their scheme has given Iowa fits of late and they play with a similar passion as we saw from our own defense Saturday. That worries me, but their offense isn’t nearly as good as the one our D just held to 19 points.

I’ve heard a few rumblings of people upset with play-calling on the offensive side of the ball. I think you’re reaching. Sure, there are things I wish had gone differently. I wish we would have seen more quick passes to create some space in the running game. I wish we would have seen Wadley used a decoy a bit more. I really wish someone would have let Stanley know Penn State was leaving our fastest receiver (Ihmir Smith-Marsette) in man coverage with no safety help for most of the game. For the love of all that is holy, I wish we would have seen some semblance of a 2-point conversion play worth running (I am still in shock that despite having 2 defenders to cover 3 receivers on the first attempt Stanley was locked to the opposite side of the field). But on the whole, I can follow the logic used by Brian Ferentz and tip my cap to the incredible defense played by Penn State - it was better than I expected.

I do have some minor concerns about the offensive line run blocking, but I still attribute that in this instance to the abilities of the front seven they were playing against. I thought the pass protection, in general, was very good, especially considering the insane number of blitzes we saw Saturday. They gave up only 1 sack and 1 QB hurry according to the box score. I think there were a few more hurries, but overall very good.

Stanley wasn’t fantastic, but he also wasn’t bad. He finished 13/22 for 191 yards and another 2 TDs without a turnover. Once again, he targeted a number of different receivers (7, in fact) and a look at the chart below shows the passes were to a variety of spots on the field.

Again, I would like to see some more work over the middle. Some more shots to ISM down the sideline would have been great, and we didn’t really see the quick Easley bubble screen as I might have hoped. But all told I still don’t have major concerns about the offense. We have a very capable QB, an offensive line that is starting to look very good in pass protection, and an incredible playmaker who can bust things open at any moment.

Things didn’t go perfectly on Saturday. At times, the offense was pretty rough. The run game really struggled to get going and with a speedy defense it was tough to get our best players in space effectively. There were dropped passes and missed opportunities.

The defense didn’t wrap up and gave up some big plays. They were statistically dominated in almost every way you could imagine. And yet, at the end of the day, the Hawkeyes were this close to knocking off another top 5 opponent in Kinnick last Saturday.

So as frustrated and disappointed as we all are (and none more so than the team no doubt), I think we really learned something Saturday. We learned this team may have a number of flaws, but they have heart and grit and an ability to hang with just about any team they may face this season. There were some areas of concern and some things to clean up, as they say. But I came out of the stadium Saturday evening feeling pretty good about the remainder of this season.

On to Michigan State. Let’s attack the week. Go Hawks.