Week five of the college football season is a letdown week for the Iowa football team in every sense of the term. Hawkeye fans and players, deflated after narrowly missing their opportunity to knock off the then-18th ranked Wisconsin Badgers last Saturday, find themselves slogging through the malaise of an early-season bye week instead of being given the opportunity to exorcise the demons brought upon by a heartbreaking home loss.
Frustrating as the placement of a bye week after an unfortunate loss may seem, the Hawkeyes stand to reap a number of benefits by having this particular week off. For one, Wisconsin is arguably the most physical team on Iowa’s schedule this season, and Hawkeye players stand to gain from having an extra week to physically recover from that matchup. Anyone who watched Iowa’s lifeless, uninspired performance at home against Purdue in 2017 one week after being physically dominated by the Badgers can attest to the risks that come with playing a competitive conference foe immediately following the Heartland Trophy game. Furthermore, with Iowa’s first road game impending against Minnesota, the coaching staff should benefit from having extra time to prepare its players for their first foray of the year into hostile territory.
The 2018 Hawkeyes certainly have their issues, some of which are largely systemic and require more than two weeks to properly remedy (for example, it would take far more than the allotted space in this column to address Iowa’s problems at wide receiver). However, Iowa’s bye week does give Kirk Ferentz an opportunity to address a number of small, correctable problems prior to the conference season starting. Here are a few of the things the Hawkeyes have hopefully been working on during their bye week:
1. Devise a plan to increase Noah Fant’s role in the offense
The expectations of a fanbase can sometimes be heavily influenced by offseason narrative surrounding particular players, and the exceptional amount of hype around pre-season All-American tight end Noah Fant may have left some fans with unreasonable expectations. Fant’s numbers have been solid this season (15 catches for 169 yards) and he continues to shine as a red zone weapon (4 touchdowns through as many games). However, the majority of Fant’s yards came in one game against UNI, and Fant has thus far been outplayed against FBS opponents by TJ Hockenson, who is a better blocker and has proven more reliable catching the ball. Fant’s snap count against Wisconsin reflects this, as he saw the field for 35 snaps compared to Hockenson’s 50.
Iowa’s coaching staff talked at length during the offseason about Fant’s unique ability to create a mismatch against any defender; he is too fast and athletic to be covered by most linebackers and safeties, and matching a smaller, quicker defender against him in man coverage helps Fant minimize his shortcomings as a blocker in the run game. However, with the exception of the red zone where Fant has been Stanley’s primary target in the passing game, the Iowa coaches haven’t done enough to create and exploit these mismatches to capitalize on Fant’s extraordinary talent. Fant can line up in the slot, as a spit end, and as an H-back, making him Iowa’s most versatile offensive weapon. Brian Ferentz and his team would be well-served by pouring through the film to see whether Fant’s underutilization outside the red zone is a product of Stanley not looking Fant’s way often enough or the coaches simply not being creative enough in Fant’s deployment. Either way, the bye week gives Iowa’s coaches a chance to develop new strategies to maximize Fant’s role in the offense.
2. Continue to make strides in pass coverage
Iowa’s veteran safeties have both played extremely well through four games, and young Hawkeye cornerbacks Matt Hankins and Michael Ojemudia showed flashes of greatness in their efforts to shut down the potent Iowa State passing game in Week 2. However, the Hawkeye secondary found themselves somewhat exposed against Wisconsin, surrendering 205 passing yards and three touchdowns on 17-22 passing to a fairly pedestrian quarterback in Alex Hornibrook. Amani Hooker was frozen by Hornibrook’s play fake on Wisconsin’s first touchdown and allowed his man to pass him by with ease, while Hankins, Ojemudia, and freshman Julius Brents often gave the Badgers’ receivers far too great a cushion in coverage, surrendering easy catches. Hankins is dealing with an injury suffered against the Badgers, which may force the talented, but unproven, Brents into action in Minneapolis.
In fairness to Iowa’s secondary, the potency of Wisconsin’s run game had much to do with some of these lapses. Jonathan Taylor required a great deal of attention to slow down, and it’s doubtful that Hooker in particular would have been so badly fooled by the play-action had the running threat not been of particular concern. Additionally, Iowa’s pass rush likely won’t see another offensive line as strong as Wisconsin’s which should reduce the time opposing quarterbacks have to throw in future games. Still, with many talented receivers left to play this season, including Minnesota’s Tyler Johnson, diagnosing and improving upon the secondary’s occasional lapses in coverage can help solidify a defense that may very well be among the best in the nation.
3. Settle on the linebacker rotation
Iowa’s linebacker rotation has been influx for much of the season, and the recent injury to Nick Niemann creates further questions about which three members of this unit will get the start against Minnesota. Barrington Wade is listed as Niemann’s backup on the depth chart but has hardly seen the field this season and has yet to record a tackle. Other potential options for Niemann’s spot include Djimon Colbert, who acquitted himself very nicely against Iowa State and played much of the second half against Wisconsin, or possibly moving Kristian Welch from his starting spot at weakside linebacker and allowing Colbert to play in Welch’s current position. Jack Hockaday seems to have firmly supplanted Amani Jones at middle linebacker, but Iowa’s bye week has hopefully given Iowa’s defensive staff greater clarity regarding the best combination of linebackers to flank Hockaday on both sides.
4. Improve execution on special teams
Despite improvements in the punting game, the Hawkeyes have still made a number of critical special teams mistakes early in this season, including a blocked punt, fumbled punt return, and one instance of ill-timed contact between the football and Shaun Beyer’s foot. The special teams lapses against Wisconsin were devastating to Iowa’s chances, but special teams coach LeVar Woods believes his players are, “very, very close to being a dangerous return unit.” Iowa’s punt returner Kyle Groeneweg has certainly flashed potential in this realm, but after Iowa’s comedy of errors in the punt return game last year, most Iowa fans would likely settle for competency with this unit. The Hawkeyes’ miscues against Wisconsin were largely mental ones, so hopefully a renewed emphasis on communication, discipline, and ball security in the return game can address these flaws by the time Iowa heads to Minnesota.
5. Don’t let the offense lose what little rhythm it has
After two games of mostly pedestrian offense, the Hawkeyes finally showed some spark against UNI and Wisconsin. Stanley seems more in sync with his receivers than he was at the beginning of the season, Ivory Kelly-Martin’s return from injury gave new life to the running game, and the offensive line has greatly impressed with its pass protection prowess thus far. Sure nobody would confuse the Hawkeye offense with Ohio State or Oklahoma, but progress is progress.
However, Iowa’s offense has struggled after bye weeks under Brian Ferentz. The Hawkeyes recorded only 234 yards of total offense in an embarrassing loss against Penn State following their bye in 2016 and were held to 10 points after their bye week by Northwestern in 2017. Considering the significance of Iowa’s offensive struggles through four games, one shudders to think what that unit might look like if they come out REALLY flat against Minnesota. It will be up to Brian Ferentz to keep Stanley sharp, keep the offensive skill players engaged, and find a way to prevent the post-bye week malaise that has infected his unit in seasons past.
Despite being 0-1 in conference play, the Hawkeyes remain in the thick of the Big Ten West race. Whether Iowa’s players and coaches utilized or squandered their bye week will likely have a lot to say about how long that remains the case.