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Season in Review: Looking Back at Iowa Football’s 2018 Campaign

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Iowa didn’t win the Big Ten West, but it did give fans plenty to cheer about in 2018.

NCAA Football: Outback Bowl-Mississippi State vs Iowa Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

College football always seems to end almost as soon as it began. After four months of competition and a mere thirteen games, Iowa football fans will now be subjected to another nine months of off-season rumors, lineup speculation, and poring over recruiting rankings in an attempt to identify the next crop of Hawkeye superstars. However, these dark college football-less months do provide fans with an opportunity to reflect on the events of the past season and determine what, if anything, they indicate about the trajectory of the program.

The Iowa Hawkeyes’ 2018 football season was a largely successful one despite being replete with missed opportunities. The Hawks finished with nine wins including three rivalry game victories and a win over a quality SEC team in the Outback Bowl, exactly matching the Football Power Index’s pre-season projection for this team’s performance. Still, narrow losses against Wisconsin, Penn State, Purdue, and Northwestern remain bitter reminders of how tantalizingly close the Hawkeyes came to winning the Big Ten West in a season in which it was decidedly up for grabs.

Here is a breakdown of how the Iowa offense, defense, and special teams performed this past season:

Offense:

Like virtually every team in the Kirk Ferentz era, the 2018 Hawkeyes struggled at times with offensive consistency. On one hand the Hawkeye offense averaged 31.2 points-per-game, the highest average of any Iowa team since 2002. The Hawkeyes were fairly efficient on third down (43%) and even better on 4th (68%). On the other hand, however, Iowa averaged only 375 yards of offense per game (good for 92nd in the nation), had a fairly pedestrian red zone conversion rate of 85%, and had many games (Penn State, Northwestern, Iowa State) in which the offense seemed utterly incapable of sustaining drives and producing points.

One area in which the offense saw improvements in 2018 was the passing game. Thanks to the historically productive tight end duo of TJ Hockenson and Noah Fant, an improving wide receiver corps, and excellent pass protection, the Hawkeye offense relied far more on the passing game than it did in 2017. Fortunately Iowa’s quarterback was up to the task; Nate Stanley tied the school record for most touchdowns in a season with 26, improved his completion percentage by nearly four points (from 55.8% in 2017 to 59.2% in 2018), and dramatically improved his efficiency on 3rd down, seeing his situational passer rating improve from 116.63 to 143.00. While Stanley did throw more interceptions in 2018 (10) than 2017 (6), he was asked to play a substantially larger role in the offense in 2018 due to the departure of Akrum Wadley, and Iowa’s frequent struggles to run the ball allowed defenses to focus far more on Iowa’s passing game than they had in previous years relative to the ground game.

Speaking of Iowa’s running game, Akrum Wadley proved even more difficult to replace in 2017 than many fans originally predicted. While the Hawkeyes did have some performances in which the running game was more of a liability than an asset (the Outback Bowl immediately comes to mind, but the Iowa State and Purdue games also apply), the Hawkeyes did ultimately settle on a productive one-two punch in Mekhi Sargent and Toren Young. Both backs, along with a hopefully healthy Ivory Kelly-Martin and incoming freshman Tyler Goodson, should play major roles in Iowa’s running game for years to come.

Iowa’s offensive play-calling is always subject to disproportionate criticism, but there was quite a bit to like about Iowa’s offensive game-planning at times this year. Brian Ferentz deserves credit for developing game plans that, at times, left Iowa’s opponents flummoxed, such as the spread looks against Minnesota, the tight end-heavy game plan against Indiana, and the full embrace of the power running game against Nebraska. Still, the inability of the offensive staff to fully utilize Noah Fant in the passing game needlessly limited the offense’s potential, and Brian must also deserve a share of the blame for the games in which the offense struggled. The offense ended the season on a high note with a better-than-expected performance against a stellar Mississippi State defense, complete with Brian astutely switching to a more pass-heavy attack and abandoning the inside zone once it became clear that Iowa’s line could not stand up against the Bulldogs’ interior defense. Iowa’s offense has not historically been known for its dynamic in-game adjustments, so hopefully the success in the Outback Bowl will serve as sign of things to come in the maturation of Iowa’s young offensive coordinator.

Defense:

Simply put, Iowa’s defense had a stellar year in 2018. The Hawkeyes ranked 11th in scoring defense, finished in the top 20 in both run and pass defense, and allowed the 7th fewest yards-per-game of any team in the country (293.6). Iowa pitched two defensive shutouts in addition to holding two opponents under 10 points, and with the notable exception of the Purdue game, the defense played consistently well over the course of the season.

The strength of the 2018 defense was undoubtedly the front four, which accounted for the bulk of Iowa’s 35 sacks and proved to be effective defending against both the run and the pass. AJ Epenesa and Anthony Nelson wreaked havoc on opposing tackles as edge rushers, while Chauncey Golston and Parker Hesse made high-impact plays in the shadows of their more celebrated teammates. Matt Nelson unfathomably finished tied for second on the team with 6 passes defended and provided veteran leadership and a stout interior presence along with Sam Brincks and Cedrick Lattimore. Phil Parker’s willingness to deploy four defensive ends in obvious passing situations (Epenesa and Anthony Nelson on the edge, Hesse and Golston on the interior) overwhelmed offensive coordinators all season, and helped the Hawkeyes hold opponents to a 3rd down conversion rate of only 34.25%.

However, one cannot tell the story of the 2018 Hawkeye defense without focusing heavily on the play of its safeties, especially a particularly talented safety that spent much of the season playing out of position. The strong play of Jake Gervase and Geno Stone allowed Phil Parker to deploy All-American Amani Hooker in the newly-created “Star” position which allowed him to wreak havoc as an outside linebacker/slot cornerback/strong safety hybrid. Hooker’s presence as a de facto defensive back at linebacker allowed the Hawkeyes to remain in their base defense while still managing to counter more pass-heavy offensive alignments, while his sure tackling prevented teams from exploiting Iowa’s decision to go small by running the ball. The “Star” position appears to be here to stay, though the Hawkeyes will be hard-pressed to find another player who fills it as well as the now NFL-bound Hooker did in 2018.

Making the performance of these position groups even more impressive was the rampant youth and inexperience at other critical positions. Iowa saw a constant rotation of players at both cornerback and linebacker due to injuries and inconsistencies, yet the defense continued to function at a high level despite frequent personnel changes. Hawkeye fans can expect an open competition at cornerback and linebacker in the spring, though it will ultimately turn out to be a blessing for Iowa to have so many players with significant game experience at these important positions of years to come. One player who made a surprisingly large impact in 2018 was middle linebacker Jack Hockaday, whose steady leadership stout run support will be sorely missed next year.

Phil Parker is one of the top defensive coordinators in the country and 2018 was arguably his most impressive performance yet. Iowa’s utter devastation of the Maryland offense was one of the single best games executed by a Hawkeye defense in the Ferentz era, and Parker did a masterful job of deploying personnel packages that maximized Iowa’s strengths without sacrificing the fundamental identity of the defensive unit.

Special Teams:

Miguel Recinois made arguably the play of the year for the Hawkeyes with his game-winning kick to beat Nebraska on Black Friday, which was a wonderful way to cap off a strong senior season for the experienced kicker. Punting remained something of an adventure in 2018 even as Colten Rastetter improved on his performance from the previous year. Ihmir Smith-Marsette established himself as one of the best kick returners in the nation (Outback Bowl fumble aside), but it was Kyle Groeneweg who managed to find the end zone on special teams with his explosive punt return touchdown against Illinois. Still, it was Iowa’s increasingly inventive trick special teams plays that will be best remembered in Hawkeye lore, which is a real credit to the excellent job done by special teams coach LeVar Woods.

Overall:

It’s easy to look back at any football season and wonder “what if?” What if that ball hadn’t hit Shaun Beyer’s leg against Wisconsin? What if Nate Stanley had hit the wide-open TJ Hockenson against Penn State or not thrown that back-breaking goal line interception? What if Julius Brents hadn’t been called for pass interference in the end zone against Purdue? What if some good samaritan had helpfully reminded Iowa’s coaching staff that Noah Fant existed prior to kickoff against Northwestern?

That being said, the same exercise can be done from the opposite point of view. What if Recinos had missed that kick against Nebraska? What if Stanley and the Hawkeye offense hadn’t calmly responded to the strip-sack against Minnesota with a steady scoring drive to cement their lead and zap the Gophers’ momentum? What if Nick Easley hadn’t torched the nation’s #1 scoring defense for a 75-yard touchdown in the Outback Bowl? It’s easy to fixate on the missed opportunities that come with a season like Iowa’s, but one should not do so at the expense of celebrating the many wonderful moments that made this season such a joy to experience.

Despite the lingering feeling that 2018 could have been one of those “special” Kirk Ferentz seasons, the Iowa Hawkeyes gave their fans plenty to be excited about this past year. The offense, while not perfect, produced at a far higher level than those of many past Hawkeye teams, the defense met and exceeded nearly all of the lofty preseason expectations, and Miguel Recinos and the special teams unit came through when it mattered the most to give Iowa its fourth straight win over Nebraska. Most Iowa fans, gun to their head, would have happily accepted a 9-4 record at the start of the season, and the 2018 team represented yet another successful Top 25 performance that will help solidify Kirk Ferentz’s growing legacy as an Iowa coaching legend.

Despite the significant defections to the NFL, the Hawkeyes will enter the 2019 season boasting a senior quarterback, one of the top defensive ends in the country, an intriguing corps of young running backs and wide receivers, two burgeoning young stars at offensive tackle, and a plethora of experienced players on defense. It remains to be seen whether Iowa’s returning and incoming players can replicate or expand on the Hawkeyes’ performance in 2018, but there is little doubt that the readers of this site will be there for the ride.

Best of luck surviving the offseason and see you all next September!