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Matchup to Watch: Repetition vs. Regression

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Can Iowa show enough in the pass game to make Wisconsin think twice about their offense?

NCAA Football: Iowa State at Iowa Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

Iowa’s offense is rarely going to show much variety. Whenever I think of it, my mind turns — almost immediately — to Herman Boone greeting his fellow coaches before the Titans board their bus to training camp:

“Just give it time, it always works.”

It’s been 20 years – plenty of time – and the above is rarely the case. In this young season, though, it’s fair to give the Hawkeye offense at least some benefit of the doubt.

In each of their first two games, they faced two defenses who came in highly regarded. Against Northern Illinois, they were without their top two tackles and sold out to stop the pass rush. The repetition eventually broke the Huskies’ defense via the run game and its addition of Toren Young. Novocain.

Versus Iowa State, well, that’s less explainable from an Iowa perspective. There were plenty of drops and misthrows in the passing game and loads of telegraphed runs which rarely exposed the defense’s aggression. They did enough to win, which is fine. But they should be above the nearly bare minimum, especially given the field position they were granted time and again.

So what will we see from Iowa against Northern Iowa? I expect we will see much of the same. It would be a fool’s errand to expect otherwise, especially when Kirk says things like:

The big thing is how do we attack that challenge, how do we get better during the week. Repetition is really important but good repetition is more important, so that’s what we’re trying to get on the practice field right now.

So who needs to develop chemistry? First and foremost, things need to get rolling between Nate Stanley and Noah Fant. Fant hasn’t been sprung loose yet and has struggled with a couple drops so far this season. If he’s able to get going, it’ll be a great lead-in to the Wisconsin game. If he doesn’t, though, it’s fair to wonder when it might get clicking for him.

Out wide, it’s key Brandon Smith leverages his 34-yard reception as a springboard to quality play. He showed a good ability to use his body to his advantage in a way which he did not against Northern Illinois on a similar play. Smith said, via Scott Dochterman, “That was completely on me,” Smith said. “I learned my lesson on that.”

Further, Stanley must connect with Nick Easley. After being the go-to receiver in 2017 – especially early – he’s caught just a single ball in 2018. Whether by injury or just a focus away from him, the security blanket has been non-existent. This has been most evident in two slant patterns Stanley threw into the ground towards Easley’s direction.

Ultimately, it comes down to Stanley. With two great games and significant amounts of mediocrity, it’s fair to wonder what he is. Certain statistics are able to explain away his performance – his adjusted completion percentage from last year was above 70% - but there comes a time where, eventually, he is what he is. Right now, he looks like a version of Nathan Chandler: a big, strong-armed QB who didn’t lose games and was able to manage a game opposite an all-time Hawkeye defense.

Iowa Swarm looked into some of the issues specific to the ISU game and concluded, “I think he knows which guy he wants to get the ball to before the ball is even snapped, and it’s more often than not a tight end.”

It jives with some preseason Brian Ferentz rhetoric: it’s not just about getting out of a bad play now, it’s about getting into a good play. It shows in his ability to adjust to a good play as multiple “go” routes have been a function of Stanley audibles. To his credit, he’s identifying these advantages and going to them. But he needs to understand when to come off of his first read when it remains covered.

Iowa’s offensive line and running game has looked good but not great in each of the first two games. They’ve hit the magic 100-yard mark and are poised to do it again. UNI, however, succeeded quite well in stopping the Montana Grizzlies and held them to 75 rushing yards despite being down 26 points at halftime. They were able to continually limit the Grizzlies’ second half drives and get them off the field. If Iowa is unable to execute up front, it could prove to be too close for comfort.

It is unfair to UNI to look past them given their history but game reps are ultimately the best version of practice as Iowa heads into conference season. It’s incredibly important Iowa makes the most of these reps on Saturday and have something to build on. Otherwise, it could mean a regression to another season of white-knuckled, defense-reliant games.

Maybe that’s Kirk’s Novocain.