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Overreaction Monday: The Sky is Falling

The Hawkeyes lost a heart-breaker to the Badgers on Saturday night. Since then, there’s been a lot of finger pointing and frustration. It would seem the sky is falling in Iowa City.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Iowa
When you go to kiss the bull, you have to watch out for the bullsh*t.
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

It was all there for the taking. Getting the Wisconsin monkey off the back. Moving to 4-0. Jumping into the top-25. The Big Ten West. A return to Indy. All of it was there for the Hawkeyes. It was so close we could taste it, feel it, smell it.

All we had to do was reach out and grab it.

Instead, it’s Monday morning and we’re all left shaking our heads, wondering what could have been. Iowa is not 4-0. They won’t be jumping into the top-25. And I’ve officially cancelled my hotel reservation in Indianapolis.

Terrible coaching.

Terrible execution.

The offense is a joke.

The defense isn’t what we thought.

They need to throw more.

They need to run more.

I’ve never seen such terrible special teams play.

Fire Brian Ferentz.

Fire Kirk Ferentz.

Cut Ihmir Smith-Marsette.

Cancel the season.

Those are all things I heard Saturday night as I stood, waiting to walk up the aisles and escape Kinnick Stadium. Those sentiments were echoed all over Twitter as I walked to my car. Upon checking in on our game threads and the comments to the quick recap and morning after, you all feel the same way.

By all accounts, the sky is falling.

This here is Overreaction Monday, and you’ve taken my job before the work week began. So what the hell am I supposed to do for the next 1500 words?

I suppose for starters we could examine what, exactly, happened on Saturday night.

While that seems fairly elementary and given the recaps and rewatches and everything else both here and elsewhere, I don’t think it’s beating a dead horse given the wide-ranging criticisms and complaints I’ve heard/seen. In a number of cases people (sometimes the same person) are frustrated by mutually exclusive things. So it’s worth evaluating what’s valid and what’s whiny BS coming from people who are just upset (and sometimes drunk) about a loss.

The Defense

Let’s begin with the unit that I think has received the least amount of criticism.

On the positive side of things, the unit didn’t allow a rushing touchdown from Jonathan Taylor all game and it took a fluke play with under a minute for them to give one up at all. In terms of what we’ve come to recognize as a classic Parker (take your pick between Phil and Norm) bend, but not break defensive effort.

All told, the defense only gave up 14 points in 59 minutes of football. Given some of the tough situations they were put in, that isn’t bad at all.

The flip side of that, though is what they did give up and what they weren’t able to do.

They did give up two touchdowns in less than a minute of play. They did give up more than 200 yards rushing. They did allow Alex Hornibrook to complete 77% of his passes (compared to 63% on the season coming into this game).

They didn’t create any turnovers (the first time Wisconsin has not turned the ball over all season). They didn’t get much pressure all night (they only had one sack and one QB hurry - both season lows). They didn’t keep things in front of them consistently, allowing passes of 33, 28 and 17 yards on the two scoring drives that Wisconsin didn’t start inside Iowa territory and the 33-yard scamper by the fullback with less than 30 seconds left.

The first touchdown by Wisconsin was set up with the 33-yard completion to the fullback on a missed assignment by Welch and finished with the wide open pass to the tight end both Amani Jones and Amani Hooker decided wasn’t worth their time.

Matt Hankins graded out as the worst of the defensive backs and ended up being replaced by freshman Julius Brents (who graded out as the highest rated corner and second highest DB behind only Geno Stone). But it was Michael Ojemudia who was beaten a number of times deep and graded out as the worst defensive back in coverage at a paltry 56.4 per Pro Football Focus.

This secondary remains a question mark. Wisconsin didn’t have the personnel to truly take advantage, but future opponents will and guys like Hankins and Ojemudia will be put to the test.

At the end of the day, the defense didn’t lose Iowa this game, but they didn’t win it either. They did enough for Iowa to be able to win, but had some really bad missed assignments that cost Iowa points.

The Offense

This is where the bulk of the frustration seems to lay with the Hawkeye fans I’ve listened to/read on social media/interacted with. It’s also where you all seem to disagree with each other or yourselves.

“We played too conservatively and need to throw more!”

“We got too cute and need to run more!”

“We need to get our best athletes the ball!”

“We need to get our most reliable players the ball more!”

What I saw? All those, to an extent, are true. They’re also all huge cop outs. Iowa ran the ball 31 times on Saturday night. They threw it 23 times. Two of those rushes were scrambles by Nate Stanley, so if we’re being accurate, it was a 29/25 split.

I mean, I don’t know what to complain about with Iowa running the ball 54% of the time. Certainly not when they’re averaging nearly 5 yards per rush and more than 11 yards per pass attempt (this is a major distinction - Iowa average a first down every time they ATTEMPTED to throw a pass, not just on the ones the completed).

Stanley and Co. finished with 404 yards of total offense - 256 passing and 148 rushing. Coming into this game, Iowa was 31-1 in games where they rushed for more than 100 yards dating back to 2015. They were 0-11 in games where they didn’t get to 100 yards. This marked only the second time in more than three seasons where the Hawkeyes topped 100 rushing yards and managed to lose.

So how does that happen?

Play calling. Poor execution. Both.

Iowa’s first series, which ended in a failed fourth down conversion is the perfect example. Brian Ferentz called a nearly perfect set of plays to get the Hawkeyes down the field. But with Ivory Kelly-Martin coming down just short of the line to gain, Iowa found itself in a predicament.

This is a series where points have historically been at a premium and here the Hawkeyes were with a chance to get some early. Conversely, they just marched down the field on a Wisconsin defense that had been gashed up the middle by BYU and looked well on their way to another long day at the office.

The QB sneak has been a staple under Kirk Ferentz in very short yardage situations, but typically it comes out of a hurry to the line following a close play. Iowa tried that and was saved from a false start by an official review. At that point, I think we can all agree the QB sneak wasn’t the best option against a defense with a mammoth human lined up at nose tackle. But it was called, and frankly it was there if Nate Stanley knew how to run a QB sneak. You know, like, not standing straight up behind his linemen with the ball on his back hip hoping for a parting of the Red Sea.

Poor play call, poor execution, zero points. That false start to make it 4th and 6 isn’t looking so bad in retrospect.

A number of other series have a similar vibe. Great play calls mixed in with head-scratchers. Fantastic play execution, followed by blown assignments.

The first series of the second half is a prime example. Out of the gate, Brian dials up a play-action pass out of a heavy formation with a tight end and Ivory Kelly-Martin in the I behind a fullback. It’s well designed with Hockenson wide open at the sticks in the middle of the field, Nick Easly open on an out route on the wide side of the field and Brandon Smith eating two defensive backs. But Stanley is under pressure immediately and doesn’t have time to look downfield at all.

Rather than first and ten from the 35 or better, Iowa is left in 2nd and 8 from the 25 and they have to thank Stanley’s legs for saving his linemen’s rear ends. Now in second and long, Brian is almost forced to run or risk being in third and long and potentially three and out in under a minute of game time.

Unfortunately, his line does him no favors again and the stretch play is blown up for only a 1 yard game. Iowa ends up in third and long anyway. Brian goes shotgun with three wide and a tight end only to watch the offensive line fail him again.

Luckily, Stanley’s legs save the line again and he’s able to avoid the immediate pressure, keep his eyes up field and find Ihmir Smith-Marsette for a 12 yard pickup. 1st and 10 from the 40.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Now that they’ve eaten some clock and created some momentum, Brian loosens things up a bit and comes back in the same shotgun look and utilized the jet sweep motion that killed Wisconsin a week ago. Mekhi Sargent picks up 4 yards on 1st down and the offense has options on second down. They come right back with IKM, who has a ton of room, but cuts outside instead of in and nearly gets stuffed. Fortunately, he bounces off the first tackler and picks up 4 to make it third and short.

This next play, to me, is a perfect example of why no offensive coordinator will ever please the masses.

I’m going to ask a rhetorical question. You don’t have to do anything with it, but just remember your answer and be truthful with yourself.

It’s 3rd and 1 from the 49 yard line. You’re in a tie game with an opponent who has suffocated you defensively for a few years running. But today, you’ve been ripping off big gains right up the middle. You’re averaging 4.8 yards per carry on the ground. What are you going to call? What do you want your OC to call?

Brian comes out with 3 tight ends and a full back. He promptly goes play-action over the top to TJ Hockenson for 45 yards down to the Wisconsin 6 yard line.

Had Stanley opted to throw to the other side of the field, he would have seen Noah Fant, who was in single coverage with a step on his man rather than the double coverage Hockenson beat. A throw to Fant likely ends up in the endzone. A little more air on the throw to Hockenson likely ends up in the endzone. As it was, Iowa had first and goal from the 6 and they would leave without a touchdown.

And that’s where there’s questions.

You just picked up this huge gain. You have all the momentum in the world. You have two all-world tight ends. Do you go to them at the goal line? Or do you get conservative and pound the ball?

If he calls for the power run game and it’s stuffed, you’re looking at 2nd and long and people are calling you an idiot for going conservative. You have all these fancy toys, why not use them? Why are we always so boring?

Instead, Brian opts to go to the air again on first down. The pocket collapses before Stanley’s tight ends and cross each other and Brian looks like an idiot for “getting cute.” He looks even more-so when IKM runs right down central for 5 yards on second down.

Third and goal from the 1. It’s the same dilemma as first down. Your gut says pound the #@&$%!( rock, but the voice in the back of your head is reminding you how stout that defensive line looked the last time they knew you were running straight ahead on that 4th and 1.

So you get cute. You motion Noah Fant out wide to show the world he’s in man coverage, all alone. Then you run a toss sweep the opposite direction. Everything looks great a half second into the play. Ivory Kelly-Martin catches the ball just outside the hash and has only two men between him and the endzone and he has a third of the field to get there. Even better, one of those two men is his fullback who’s in perfect position to block the lone Wisconsin defender within two yards of IKM or the line of scrimmage. But Brian Connelly dives over the cut block from Brady Ross and takes down Kelly-Martin for a loss.

“Ferentz is an idiot.”

But he’s an idiot with a lead, despite some mistakes. And he comes back the next series and marches 75 yards on 8 plays in three and a half minutes to keep it that way after some, uh, issues elsewhere.

Doesn’t look so stupid now.

It’s the next series though, that I think causes the most consternation among Hawkeye fans. It starts with just under 11:30 to play in the game. Iowa is up 17-14. As mentioned above, you defense has been solid so far, but they just gave up 46 yards to Wisconsin on their last drive and they’ve been giving up nearly 5 yards a carry. Anyone else remember the Big Ten Championship Game in 2015? Watching Wisconsin grind down the field for 8 minutes to win this is certainly a possibility and one that Brian Ferentz wants to avoid.

So he comes out on first down with a play-action pass that has not one, but two wide open receivers for what would be massive games and possibly back-breakers. Instead, Stanley splits the difference and it’s second and long. Great call, terrible execution, stupid coach.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

After a 7 yard pick up on 2nd down, we get both a bad call and bad execution to end the drive on 3rd down. BF goes empty on 3rd and 3 instead of leaning on Wisconsin-native Toren Young. Despite the questionable decision, Stanley actually has a man at the sticks and if nothing else is in position to likely get a pass interference call, but the pass is batted at the line of scrimmage. Punt.

The next series, still clinging to that lead with under 8 minutes to go, Ferentz decides it’s time to burn some clock. IKM picks up 8 on first down, but the second down run is stuffed and BF is forced to throw on third and five. Stanley completes an easy pass to Nick Easley on a read route and the Hawkeyes pick up 22.

So Brian does what we all expect on first down and runs. Five yard gain and we all expect him to run some more. So does Wisconsin. They plant 8 in the box with a single high safety. Stanley goes play-action and has Ihmir Smith-Marsette wide open with space, but he holds it and a defenders crashes. The throwing lane disappears and Stanley is forced to throw it away.

Instead of 1st and 10 from the Wisconsin 45, it’s 3rd and 5 from the Iowa 47 and the clock is stopped. Stanley see’s ISM in man coverage with lots of room and throws one over the top, but Smith-Marsette takes an inside release and the ball is thrown to the hash and is closer to the Wisconsin safety than anyone else. Brian looks like an idiot.

From here, we know how things end. It wasn’t pretty. But for much of the night it really was. It would have been even prettier if Iowa had a chance to run more than 54 plays. They should have.

Special Teams

This is where things really break down. And honestly, this isn’t a special teams issue. The kickoff and kickoff return teams did great. The punt team was fine. Field goal and extra points were no problem. But the punt return game went from a major strong point to a huge issue.

Iowa and special teams coach LeVar Woods have spent the last year talking about the hidden yards they gave up on punt return last year. It was a BIG issue in the game with Wisconsin. Chad Liestikow brought it up with Woods on HawkCentral last week and you could practically hear Woods smile through the phone because it’s been such a positive this season.

Kyle Groeneweg has been spectacular. He’s fielded punts, including some with a ton of traffic, and made something out of nothing. He brings a dynamic back there that’s been missing since Desmond King departed. We saw that early against Wisconsin, too.

But things took a dark, dark turn with just under 4 minutes remaining in the first half.

Despite the squandered opportunity on the opening drive and the easy TD the defense gave up, Iowa was tied up 7-7 and seemed to have some momentum. Then Groeneweg fielded a Wisconsin punt, reversed fields and was streaking up the sideline for a huge return. But he sacrificed ball security for speed and swiped the ball on a defenders hip, fumbling at the Iowa 45. Instead of Iowa with the ball 1st and 10 near midfield with three and a half minutes to score, it was Wisconsin in that position.

Making matter worse, when Iowa’s defense held Wisconsin to a second straight 3 and out, Groeneweg seemed to overcompensate for either the fumble or the hidden yards issue of a year ago, or both. He called for a fair catch on the ensuing punt while standing around the 6 yard line. The ball sailed on him a bit and he fielded it at the Iowa 3. With less than a minute remaining, any hope of moving 40 yards for a quick score were gone and the Hawkeyes went to half all tied up.

Unfortunately for the punt return team, their problems didn’t end at half time. The Iowa defense forced a punt on Wisconsin’s first drive of the second half and things were looking good. The Hawkeyes had a 10-7 lead and were about to get the ball back.

But Groeneweg didn’t field this one as it came up short. Instead, it bounced around near the 10 yard line. It was done moving with Wisconsin defenders beginning to circle and a whistle coming any moment when Shaun Beyer, unaware of the ball’s location, held his block right into the ball and making it live for the Badgers to pounce on.

Three straight Wisconsin punts, two Iowa turnovers and a punt fair caught at the 3 yard line.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

The punt return woes didn’t cost Iowa the game. They were something the Hawkeyes could overcome. But they made the margin for error incredibly small. You don’t beat a team like Wisconsin with 2 turnovers in the return game. And the Iowa offense and defense made enough mistakes to give the Badgers the opening they needed to win the game.

That’s football.

Where there things that didn’t go perfectly? Yes. Were there decisions made that in retrospect were incorrect? Yes. Where there plays that were called well, but blown up because guys whiffed on their assignments? Yes.

That’s. Football.

Snort all you want, but that happens to every team in America in every football game played. Saturday night was no different. There’s blame to go around. But at the end of it, with all the miscues and miscalculations, Iowa was winning until the final minute. Iowa, for all but a handful of plays, looked like the better team. For most of the game, they looked like the MUCH better team.

And now we sit here on this Monday with no game to wash the taste out of our mouth this week. There’s that blemish in the loss column. But from what we saw Saturday, there will probably be a couple of those in Wisconsin’s loss column before the season is done. There’s still a chance, a VERY slim chance, that Iowa can win the West.

They need be near perfect the rest of the way. Wisconsin isn’t as good as everyone predicted at the beginning of the year, but they’re good enough to beat teams that make mistakes like the Hawkeyes did on Saturday. If Iowa can fix those problems, build on this loss and move forward, they have a chance to be who most of us expected them to be.

This still looks like a football team that should go 9-3. I still think 10-2 is a very real possibility. There is still the long shot hope at 11-1 and a return to Indy. The sky is NOT falling. The coaches are NOT idiots. The players do NOT deserve to be cut.

This team is going to be a lot of fun to watch down the stretch. They’re going to lose another game or two, but they’re going to do some great things. I’m here to enjoy the ride, even if I’m driven to drink a few Saturdays in between.

Happy Monday. Go Hawks. Take a week to recover, overreact, and enjoy the good things to come the rest of this season.