There are many issues one could raise with Iowa’s offensive performance after its 14-10 home defeat to the Big Ten West champion Northwestern Wildcats. Iowa’s struggles running the football, its fourth quarter fumbles, the frequency of check-downs in the passing game, and the offense’s inability to put together complete drives all played a major role in Iowa’s defeat on Saturday. However, there is one stat line that best explains Iowa’s offensive futility against the Wildcats:
Noah Fant: 3 targets, 1 catch, 0 yards
The lack of usage for the pre-season All-American is startling and inexplicable. Chad Leistikow reported that Fant saw the field on only nine of Iowa’s 26 offensive snaps in the second half, and when he was in the game he was virtually non-existent, receiving zero targets in the final two quarters. One might assume that injuries limited Fant’s role in the offensive this week, but the tight end assured the media of his health during postgame interviews. Two other quotes from postgame conversation help provide an explanation for Fant’s lack of impact in the game, the first one coming from quarterback Nate Stanley after being asked to explain Fant’s negligible usage on offense:
“There was opportunities to, you know, throw him the ball, but again it just comes back to where he’s and in the progression and in the read.”
As odd as it may seem that a player of Fant’s caliber would be relegated to the third or fourth option on several passing plays, that would at least explain why Stanley found so few instances to target the athletic tight end, even if he did miss a few opportunities to target Fant deep over the course of the game. Furthermore, this quote from Kirk Ferentz explains why Fant so sparingly saw the field against Northwestern:
“We try to feature our guys that are doing the best, whether it’s T.J., Noah, our receivers. We’re calling the game as we call the game.”
“We’re playing the best guys that we feel are best for the situation that’s given.”
Iowa fans should seriously question the logic of this explanation. The notion that Noah Fant, a player who some analysts ranked as the fifth best NFL prospect for the 2019 draft less than two months ago, is not one of the “best guys” to have on the field when the offense desperately needs a touchdown to avoid losing the game seems seriously misguided. Fant’s unique blend of size, speed, and athleticism make him an absolute matchup nightmare for defenses, and the inability to design ways to get him the ball, or even to play him and force defenses to account for his presence, does a great disservice to the Hawkeye offense. A play as simple as a jump ball to Fant can produce positive effects, as Fant’s remarkable 42-inch vertical leap forces smaller defenders to either surrender a catch or commit pass interference as Northwestern did against Fant when Stanley targeted him downfield.
This trend has been developing over the course of the season but has become particularly pronounced over Iowa’s past four games in which the elite red-zone weapon has not recorded a single touchdown. Fant followed up his strong performance against Indiana with three catches for 14 yards against Maryland, was virtually invisible through the first three quarters of the game against Penn State (Fant had one reception for 22 yards prior to the 4th quarter), and gained all but 20 of his yards against Purdue on a single reception that he caught behind the line of scrimmage before torching the Boilermaker defense like few if any tight ends in the country can:
To clarify, this praise of Fant should not be perceived as an indictment of his fellow tight end TJ Hockenson. Hockenson is on pace for arguably the greatest statistical season for a tight end in the history of the program, and his sure hands, crisp route-running, and excellent blocking skills make him a better pure fit for the position than Fant. But there is absolutely no reason the two players can’t share the field, especially considering Fant’s ability to play off-tackle, in the slot, or spread out on the far side of the field.
Iowa’s two-tight end sets featuring Hockenson and Fant have been extremely productive in numerous games in the past, and it was bizarre to see the Hawkeyes move away from them against Northwestern. During Iowa’s signature victory over Ohio State in 2017, the Hawkeyes consistently used pre-snap shifts and motion by tight ends to confuse the vaunted Buckeye defense and create mismatches that favored the one position on offense in which the Hawkeyes had an athletic advantage over their opponents.
Similarly, Iowa frequently deployed both tight ends with great success this season, as evidenced by the game against Indiana in which Fant and Hockenson each eclipsed 100 yards receiving and the Hawkeye offense produced its highest yardage output of the season. Brian Ferentz has found ways to effectively utilize both Hockenson and Fant in the offense just as he found ways to use Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez when he coached the prolific tight end duo as the tight ends coach for the New England Patriots. Why Ferentz has struggled to find ways to adequately keep both players involved in the offense in recent weeks is anyone’s guess.
One potential explanation for Fant’s lack of production against Northwestern was the excellent play of corner back Montre Hartage whom the broadcasters specifically credited with helping to contain Fant early on. However, not only was Fant able to draw pass interference call against Hartage on a rare attempt by Stanley to hit the tight end downfield, but Hartage sustained a game-ending injury in the third quarter which would have left a far-less capable defender matched up against the pre-season All-American. Furthermore, when Iowa finally did attack Northwestern’s replacement corner backs on a fade to the end zone, the target was inexplicably not 6’5 Noah Fant with his 18 career receiving touchdowns, but was instead 6’0, 185 lb Max Cooper, a player with three career receptions to his name.
Additionally, one could contend that Fant disappeared from the lineup due to his inferiority as a run blocker in comparison to TJ Hockenson and junior Nate Wieting. However, not only was Iowa STILL not able to run the ball consistently even with Hockenson and Wieting in the game, but Fant could easily have slid out wide where his primary responsibility on running plays would be to block one of the undersized corner backs that Northwestern used to shadow him. Fant has done this successfully in the past, and the fact that Iowa traditionally starts the physical, big-bodied Brandon Smith at wide receiver shows that they aren’t opposed to such a player filling that spot.
Furthermore, Fant did not see the field during Iowa’s final drive in which the Hawkeyes needed a touchdown to reclaim the lead, a situation where running the ball had far less strategic utility due to the offense’s need to score quickly. While Ivory Kelly-Martin’s game-sealing fumble shows that the Hawkeye coaches never intended to completely abandon the run game on that final drive, pass-centric play calling was a clear necessity in that situation, which makes Noah Fant’s absence from the lineup particularly inexcusable.
Finally, while Fant isn’t the blocker that Hockenson and Wieting are, the Hawkeyes simply cannot afford to underutilize an offensive skill player with that much talent. Ihmir Smith-Marsette is a slight of frame wide receiver who played a significant role in Iowa’s offense against Northwestern despite being an absolute liability as a run blocker. This was the right choice; at a certain point, Smith-Marsette’s speed, athleticism, and ability to stretch the defense were important enough to Iowa’s offense to justify his place on the field, particularly considering the perpetual lack of explosive pass catchers that has plagued this program. It is so rare for an offensive weapon like Noah Fant to find his way to Iowa City, and it is remarkably frustrating to watch the Hawkeye offense struggle while the coaching staff fails to fully utilize Fant’s talents.
“Our coaches decided to give some other guys the ball,” Fant remarked after the Northwestern game when asked about his lack of involvement in the offense. “Not saying it’s right or wrong. But yeah, I’m not really sure, that’d be a better question for the coaching staff.”
Yes Noah, it certainly is.