After watching four Iowa Hawkeyes (2-2) games in consecutive weeks, it feels impossible to believe we’re already halfway through the regular season. With Friday’s beatdown of the Minnesota Golden Gophers well in the rearview mirror, it seems like a fair opportunity to use this space as a measuring stick for how Iowa has done so far in 2020.
On the field
First and foremost, Phil Parker has once again put together an incredible defense. The only two teams to give up less points than the Hawks (59) are Northwestern (56) and Wisconsin (18). The Badgers, of course, have played just two games so the raw number comparison is unfair, but each of the three is yielding under 15 points/game.
Leading the charge has been Daviyon Nixon as the star along the defensive line. He leads the team in tackles for loss (7.0) and is second in sacks (3.0). His 23 tackles are third on the team, in what feels like an impossibility for someone who spends their time at defensive tackle. A true menace.
Zach VanValkenberg has acquitted himself nicely, tallying 3.5 sacks, and Chauncey Golston has quietly amassed five tackles per game. Jack Heflin’s name is rarely called because he’s eating double teams and freeing Iowa’s linebackers - Nick Niemann & Seth Benson lead the team with 32 and 28 tackles respectively - to smother opponents’ run game (Iowa is giving up just 2.8 yards per carry). Barrington Wade has been absolutely high impact with a couple picks but just six tackles.
The defensive backfield has settled after initially struggling against Purdue & David Bell. Jack Koerner has three interceptions in addition to his 25 tackles and Riley Moss has two INTs to his name.
Tory Taylor and Charlie Jones have combined to become the most dangerous punting/punt return pair in the country. There’s little research to back this up outside of Taylor averaging a 45.8 yards/punt and Jones taking one to the house to boost his 15.0 yards/return. Keith Duncan has been a little sideways in the kicking game but honestly, there are worst things.
Speaking of those worst things...Iowa’s offense has been inconsistent. Even what has been on display the last couple games - a potent running attack - has failed to involve Iowa’s pass catchers with any real consistency. There are just four 100-yard receivers on the season - Sam LaPorta, Nico Ragaini, Tyrone Tracy, and Ihmir Smith-Marsette - and none have matched their yards/reception of last year.
It would feel more acceptable if Brian Ferentz were leaning into the spotty weather and first-year quarterback with an offense built on dinking and dunking in the pass game. It’s been used - Tracy had a couple bubble screens in Iowa’s win on Friday - but hardly a staple of the Hawkeye playcalling. Instead, Spencer Petras has been asked too often to survey the field fire one to a receiver which has led to his 53.8% completion percentage, 5.7 yards/attempt, and countless fastballs dropped by receivers.
One area where the offense has moved forward is the run game. Tyler Goodson is the clear bellcow with 375 yards at 6.0-per and 5 touchdowns. Mekhi Sargent has 208 and 6.3/carry. Together they’ve got 9 touchdowns. Jet sweeps, fake or real, have been incorporated with success and enabled Iowa’s offensive line to play as well as they have in Tim Polasek’s tenure.
Off the field
About a handful of Hawkeyes have announced their intent to transfer in-season. Though it comes on the heels of culture issues exposed in the offseason, the drip-drip-drip nature has lent more credence to it being a clear “playing time” issue. Shadrick Byrd was passed by Gavin Williams. Charlie Jones’ emergence makes return opportunities hard to come by for Daraun McKinney to see a path to PT. Yahweh Jeudy & Calvin Lockett are also buried on the depth chart as second year guys.
Ihmir Smith-Marsette’s OWI couldn’t have come at a worst time, but he appears to be in the staff’s good graces after being involved in this week’s gameplan.
A lawsuit was filed last week by former players which will extend the narrative of the culture issues and the next steps remain to be seen. We’ll monitor it but hardly have the expertise (law degrees) to analyze the proceedings.
Winning cures a lot of these things, or at least gives the illusion of a cure. Iowa seems well put-together as of this writing which is all you can ask.
Around the conference
Iowa sits fourth in the West behind two teams they’ve already lost to and Wisconsin. They’ve got a +65 scoring margin (16.3/game) which is second in the conference to only Ohio State because we’re not counting the Badgers.
Updated Big Ten Standings— Blair Sanderson (@BlairRIVALS) November 15, 2020
Next week, Ohio State vs. Indiana and Northwestern vs. Wisconsin pic.twitter.com/4HeX3VOR9Q
Though the last two games have been an absolute delight, the margin has absolutely justified the high expectations coming into the season. Going 0-2 against Purdue & Northwestern has already locked Iowa out of the conference title game. This is not the first time Iowa has been technically “alive” for a division title but with little hope of actually achieving it.
Iowa’s losing record in close games under Kirk Ferentz is not some quirk of being a developmental program. It’s a dereliction of duties to be unable to win games with his preferred style or extend leads against teams less talented than them with regularity (they’ve succeeded in the last two so briefly trending up!).
Thus ends my rant on the topic because, really, things could be worse for Iowa. Look no further than their next opponent, an 0-4 Penn State Nittany Lions ballclub who spotted Nebraska a 21-point lead and then had two potential-game-tying drives end inside the red zone on eight total pass plays despite having an offense averaging five yards a carry.
If the season were to end today, Iowa’s championship weekend opponent would be a now-moribund(?) Michigan program who got ran out of their own building by Wisconsin. Again.
In each of Iowa’s games, the Hawks have looked emotionally ready for each game. That cannot be discounted with contests taking part in empty stadiums around the upper Midwest. The defense is, very likely, going to give Brian Ferentz the chance to win each of the next four games against very beatable opponents (and the Badgers).
The Hawks cannot fix the past but they can keep moving along and lean on opponents in all three phases. If they do, maybe they get breaks along the way which has a December 12th matchup at Wisconsin determining who goes to Indianapolis to play the champion out East.
Given all the weird stuff — and that’s putting it mildly — which has happened in 2020, I wouldn’t take a six-game winning streak which launches Iowa into the title game off the table.