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Overreaction Monday: Iowa Football is giving me anxiety

The Iowa Hawkeyes came away from week 1 with a 24-3 victory over the Wyoming Cowboys. But there were plenty of areas for improvement. Of course we’ll overreact to them.

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NCAA Football: Wyoming at Iowa
Akrum Wadley had a solid, but not great day, in spite of pretty poor offensive line play.
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Guys, I’m feeling so many different things this Monday morning. I mean, it’s a holiday, I’m enjoying a nice day off after the glorious return of college football, and yet, I’m feeling uneasy, unsettled, and down right nervous about Iowa football this season.

I’ve spent most of the offseason an eternal optimist. I had high hopes (with the knowledge that those high hopes are inevitably crushed as an Iowa fan) that this defense would be good enough to shut teams down, this run game would be dominant, and this passing game would surprise a lot of people.

Well, I was 1-for-3. Not terrible if we were playing baseball, but we’re not - we’re talking football and I’m nervous as hell about what this season could have in store. Thank the football gods I have as many words as I need to exorcise these demons every Monday. Saddle up, partner.

The Good

The good, statistically speaking, was damn good. And we are, of course, talking about the defense. This is Iowa after all.

The defense showed us, for the most part, exactly what we expected they would coming into the season. They were stout against the run, giving up only 59 rushing yards on 30 attempts (just shy of 2 ypc); they didn’t give up any big plays (the longest run was an 11-yard Josh Allen scramble and the longest play of the day was a 23 yard pass from Allen to John Okwoli); and they got after it, forcing 2 turnovers and tallying 3 sacks. It did what this team needs to do to win games in 2017.

Most importantly, they rattled Josh Allen and completely held him in check. On the day, Allen finished with 174 passing yards on 23/40 passing with no touchdowns and two interceptions. That’s not to say Allen was terrible. He showed why he is widely considered a potential top pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. He has great size and athleticism and a cannon for an arm. He made a lot of throws we won’t see any other quarterback this season make. And yet, he was totally held in check.

I attribute that to a couple things. First, Josh Jackson looks like the real deal. I expected the secondary to be solid this year, but with the departure of Desmond King I don’t think there’s an Iowa fan in the world who can honestly say they didn’t expect some level of dropoff. We didn’t really see that Saturday. It’s one game, but Jackson looked the part.

Second, the Outlaw is on a mission. He’s the heart and soul of this defense and he’ll be damned if he’s letting them be the reason the Hawkeyes lose. Jewell finished Saturday with 14 tackles, 2 sacks and 2 tackles for loss. He had an interception in his hands and let it slip away. And he was rewarded for his efforts with the Walter Camp Player of the Week award.

In summary, the defense was who we thought they were. And that was damn good. They held Wyoming to 233 total yards and a potential top-10 pick to a QB Rating of just 24.9. Pretty damn good.

Warning, things are about to take a turn here and it will get worse at an accelerating rate. Buckle your seatbelts.

But even with all that, I still left the stadium with concerns future opponents will be able to better take advantage of our scheme. I watched Wyoming send a RB or TE in motion countless times, forcing our corner to slide outside on a slower target and leave an OLB in coverage against at best a slot receiver or at worst their top target. It worked out fine yesterday (though had they wanted to exploit those matchups, they certainly could have marched down the field 5 yards at a time) but it won’t against the likes of Penn State and Ohio State.

And despite the lack of big plays, I couldn’t help but wonder what would’ve happened had they taken more shots. I only recall a handful of truly deep balls from Allen. One was broken up on a phenomenal play from Jackson and another should’ve been a touchdown if not for some stone hands. Michael Ojemudia had an OK day, but he was toast against a really poor set of offensive weapons. Again, what happens when that’s Ohio State? What happens when it’s Allen Lazard?

I have some concerns about what could lay ahead.

The Bad

Making matters worse for my defensive worries, this offense could put the defense in a lot of bad situations. If they turn the ball over four times in a game again this season, I don’t know how we are talking about a win come Monday morning, save for the matchup with North Texas. And I don’t know that we make it the rest of the way without four turnovers in a game.

Nate Stanley showed flashes of why he won the starting job. The throw to Noah Fant to go ahead 14-3 late in the first half was a thing of beauty, but there were a TON of first-time starter mistakes that will cost this team games if they continue. They aren’t all on Stanley, but the absence of C.J. Beathard could be painful.

An easy example, and I think this is something the staff had been alluding to all offseason, was the Noah Fant handoff. It’s an interesting wrinkle and I don’t have any problems with Brian Ferentz making that call. I actually think it’s a good thing. It’s one more thing opposing defenses have to prep for each week from here on out. But if you go back and look at the defensive front on that play (it comes with about 1:45 left on the clock in the third quarter), you’ll see four down linemen with the corner on the left side up at the line as Fant is the only eligible receiver on his side. As Fant starts to motion, the linebacker on the right side who had been slid out into coverage for the stacked receivers at the top of the screen, creeps down toward the line showing blitz. Rather than check out of a play that is now doomed to fail, Stanley marches forward, sending Fant to meet his fate about five yards deep in the backfield.

That’s the type of stuff that can kill a drive. Just as likely to kill a drive is taking a delay of game because either you didn’t get the play in soon enough (I can’t tell you how unnerving it is in the stadium to see Iowa continually come to the line with around 10 seconds left on the clock while our opponents have no trouble getting there with 20) or because you couldn’t recognize you needed to make a change at the line until it was too late (I’ll grant Stanley that Wyoming threw a LOT of looks at him and he did a great job of making shifts late in the clock, but I expect other teams to replicate that now).

Those are things I think will improve with time - much more devastating is the turnovers. Iowa had four of them in total, three from Stanley and one from Smith-Marsette (I hope ISM isn’t banished forever a la Jonathan Parker - he has too much talent to be locked away for a mistake on his first collegiate snap). That’s completely unacceptable, especially the fumbles. The one midway through the third where the backs went the opposite way and he got crushed before losing it is killer, but you have to be able to just secure the ball the moment you realize things are FUBAR and live to play another down.

Stanley finished 8-15 for 125 yards and 3 TDs. Despite the two fumbles and one interception, he still managed a better QBR (44.3 - yuck) than Allen and Iowa got the win. But that kind of performance will cost this team wins at some point this season.

The Ugly

Perhaps most concerning in all of this is that even with three turnovers, I thought Stanley looked good enough in a number of situations to warrant being bad, not ugly here. What’s worse is the group I thought was truly ugly was supposed to be one of the strengths of this team: the offensive line.

Now, I’ll spare you the carpal tunnel syndrome and get a few things out of the way. First, there were injuries. James Daniels is an absolute stud and not having him out there in the center of the line, calling out everything is a critical blow. Compounding that with the loss of Boone Myers is a recipe for disaster. However, we’ve heard all of fall camp about how the staff has been rotating guys around and preparing to handle the inevitable adversity, and here we are in week one and now we want to use those injuries as the crutch to lean on for what was a genuinely lousy performance up front?

NCAA Football: Wyoming at Iowa
Stanley didn’t have a great game, but he didn’t get much help up front.
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

The line gave up only two sacks, but Stanley was hurried another three times and had the pocket collapse to the point that it actually imploded around him, causing one of his two fumbles on a strip sack so fast nobody even knew it happened (go back and look, the ball is just sort of sitting there a second while play continues until a Wyoming lineman falls on it). We knew the pass protection was rough last year, but I had hoped things would be improved this season. Perhaps the injuries can take some of the blame, but I was unimpressed with the protection.

I could have lived with it. It will get there and it won’t cost us games the way the turnovers will. The run blocking, on the other hand, looked atrocious to me. This was supposed to be the strength of this team. This group (essentially) is the reigning Joe Moore Award winner and as I said, it wasn’t because of their pass blocking. There were flashes of what Iowa fans have come to know and love about Kirk Ferentz coached teams, but there were also a lot of rail-thin holes to run through, defenders flying into the backfield, and extra tacklers hitting the line of scrimmage before Iowa’s playmakers could get to the second level.

I get it, there were a TON of eight and nine-man fronts. Did you expect anything different? We knew since the clock started ticking on Akrum Wadley’s senior year that teams were going to sell out against the run this season, and that isn’t changing after Saturday.

The Hawkeyes were vastly superior physically along the lines and yet, Iowa managed only 138 yards rushing on 41 carries. Akrum Wadley got his 116 on 24 attempts (4.8 ypc) because he is a physical freak, and for the most part made those yards on his own. James Butler looked solid on his 10 carries for 47 yards, but his long of only 10 yards speaks to the lack of blockers hitting the second level to spring these playmakers.

As the competition level increases from here on out, I fully expect opponents to take the cue from Wyoming and load the box, shift the secondary as Stanley makes his pre-snap reads, and make Iowa beat them through the air. It’s a scary thought after what we saw this weekend.

NCAA Football: Wyoming at Iowa
Regardless of my concerns about this team, I sure as hell love them and I can’t wait to watch them the rest of the way.
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Now that I got that out of the way, let me just say how damned excited I am that football is back! It was a glorious day in Iowa City. The temperature was perfect, there was a slight breeze, and best yet, enough cloud cover to not let you feel you were getting your face burnt off for 3 hours. Kinnick was back in all her glory and the Hawkeyes, for all the concerns I have, held an NFL-caliber QB to just 3 points while getting an opening weekend W.

Brian Ferentz showed us glimpses of new things we can hope for, but remained true to our expectations for a run-first offense. Noah Fant showed us just how special he could be, despite a couple of drops, and Nate Stanley flashed some real potential if he can overcome the mental stuff.

This defense looks like one of the good ones we’ve come to love. Josey Jewell is an All-American and the newcomer A.J. Epenesa lived up to all the hype.

Hawkeye football is back and no amount of nerves will hold back that enthusiasm.

Speaking of being back, we are back to hate week here in the great state of Iowa (or that state out east). Matt Campbell is trying his hardest to really make this a thing. The Cyclones escaped UNI last week and have decided to go all in on stealing everything about their program from other, more prestigious programs - sweet uniforms (USC), way to not refer to Iowa by name (Ohio State/Michigan), and awesome t-shirts (Hawkeyes)!

I will go ahead and acknowledge that Iowa State is actually helping farmers. Meanwhile, Iowa is actually raising the standard. That means winning football games, sending players to the NFL and not being annoyingly petty about everything along the way.

Actually winning football games.

So this week, in honor of our dear little brothers friends out west (eye roll), I encourage you all to actually drink Natty Lite. We all know those guys in Ames are too busy thinking of their next hashtag to do any real partying. Meanwhile, in Iowa City, we will actually be a top party school which is actually a top academic institution with a football program that is actually worth a damn.

Happy Monday. Go Hawks. Beat State.