Iowa’s bye week truly could not have come at a better time. Coming off the heels of a deflating loss to Purdue and facing a five-game stretch that will decide Iowa’s fate in the Big Ten West, the Hawkeyes will look to emerge from their weeklong reprieve with the bitter taste of defeat washed from their mouths. Iowa’s loss to Purdue was an example of Murphy’s Law in action: everything that could go wrong, did go wrong, revealing several weaknesses that had could torpedo Iowa’s hopes for a Big Ten Championship if they continue in the weeks to come.
Have the Hawkeyes used their bye week to help address these weaknesses? Unsurprisingly, Iowa’s coordinators spoke more about improving execution than making wholesale changes during their media availability this week, something which should hardly come as a surprise to anyone who follows this program. Still, there are several changes Iowa could make within its established framework to help improve their chances to win the remainder of their games this season.
Eliminate Slow Starts
With the notable exception of the Indiana game, Iowa has been extremely slow coming out of the gate in 2021. Iowa held only a two-point lead over Kent State at the end of the first quarter, trailed Colorado State at halftime, fell behind 7-3 to Maryland in a game the Hawkeyes won decisively, and dug themselves into a 17-3 hole against Penn State which they may not have escaped had Nittany Lion quarterback Sean Clifford not left the game due to injury. Iowa has been outscored in 41-29 in the first quarter of games this season and was outscored 28-6 in the opening period against Maryland, Penn State, and Purdue. While Iowa’s defense has been largely stellar in the second half of games, it has occasionally shown some vulnerability in early drives. Meanwhile, Iowa’s offense has consistently started poorly, failing to score on its first drive in any contest except the opener.
The Hawkeyes seemingly did a much better job scripting opening drives in 2020 than they have in 2021. Look no further than the passing statistics of Spencer Petras; the Iowa quarterback completed 66.7% of his passes in the first quarter of games in 2020 for a QB rating of 141.26, compared to only 43.1% of his passes for a rating of 76.48 in 2021. Iowa’s coaching staff has shown in years past that it can create strong opening sequences to help the offense get off on the right foot but must do a better job installing these preset packages to help the offense start strong during the next five games.
As Iowa’s loss to Purdue showed, the Hawkeyes cannot afford to fall behind by multiple scores, as their lack of offensive consistency and inability to generate big plays (among the teams that have played seven games in 2021, Iowa has produced the fifth-fewest plays of 10+ yards in college football with 73) make it hard for Iowa to score quickly. While it would be nice to see Iowa’s defense make quicker adjustments before the end of the half, the defense has been the unit keeping Iowa in close games early all season long, and establishing an offensive rhythm earlier in the game would go a long way towards reducing the pressure put on the Hawkeye defenders.
Solidify the Offensive Line
Offensive line play has been the hallmark of the Ferentz era, but the 2021 front five has been one of the weakest groups produced by the legendary coach in several years. If Tyler Linderbaum is truly the all-world lineman experts believe him to be (and for the record, he is), what does that say about the rest of the unit that the offensive line is the squeaky wheel on an offense putting up fewer yards per game (310) than any team in the conference?
Iowa’s struggles up front are not due to a lack of talent, but rather a lack of experience. Starting left tackle Mason Richman is a redshirt freshman and starting right guard Connor Colby is a true freshman. Iowa’s right tackle Nick DeJong is a sophomore walk-on who has seen limited game action before this season. Kyler Schott, Connor Colby, and Cody Ince have all missed time due to injury, creating frequent shuffles along the line that have made it difficult for Iowa’s young front five to gain consistent comfort with the players lining up next to them. The Hawkeye offensive line is composed of several players who will likely be standouts in years to come but are struggling to match the speed and physicality of many of the elite defensive linemen they are facing in Big Ten play.
How quickly can Iowa’s coaching staff level up these young linemen? The answer could very well decide the season. If Iowa’s bye week has provided the front five with the time they needed to get healthy, really dive into film study, and build greater cohesion with one another, it could create ample new opportunities in both the run and the pass game in the contests to come. If not, Iowa’s running backs will continue getting hit three yards behind the line of scrimmage, Petras will face more collapsing pockets, and Iowa’s offensive struggles will remain a constant throughout 2021.
Improve the Pass Rush with the Defensive Front Four
Iowa’s loss to Purdue marked arguably the poorest showing for the Hawkeye defensive line this season. While Iowa needed to keep its linebackers in coverage to help contain Purdue’s talented wide receivers, the Hawkeye front four consistently failed to create any pressure on the Boilermaker quarterbacks, giving them plenty of time to work through their progressions and eventually find an open target downfield. Yet the Purdue game was only the latest example of an emerging trend, as Iowa’s defensive line has produced only four quarterback hurries and one sack in the past three games according to ESPN’s statistics.
The answer to Iowa’s pass rush woes may lie in getting redshirt freshman Lukas VanNess more involved. VanNess leads the Hawkeyes with four sacks on the season despite not starting and playing fewer snaps than many of his teammates along the front four and has been a consistent source of interior pressure when he is in the game. Fellow freshman Deontae Craig is also an intriguing prospect who has flashed off the edge in pass rushing situations and could potentially see more minutes once he returns from injury. Whether Iowa’s young guns can work their way into a larger role or veterans like Zach VanValkenburg or John Waggoner can up their game rushing off the edge, Iowa’s front four must assume greater responsibility in rushing the passer if Iowa’s defense hopes to sustain its high level of play for the remainder of the season.
Increase Production at the Wide Receiver Position
Speaking of Iowa’s talented young players getting more involved, fans can only hope the offensive coaching staff used their bye week to scheme up more creative ways to get Keagan Johnson the ball. The true freshman wide receiver has flashed the kind of game-breaking talent the Hawkeyes rarely find at the position and is averaging a whopping 31.2 yards per play on only six touches from scrimmage. This statistic reveals two things: Johnson is extremely explosive with the ball in his hands, and the Hawkeye coaches should be kicking themselves for not allowing him to get more than six touches through seven games. Here’s hoping that another week of practice and preparation created more time for Johnson and fellow freshman wideout Arland Bruce to acclimate themselves with the offense and for their coaches to design more opportunities to involve them in Iowa’s offensive attack going forward. The Hawkeyes have so few players on their team who can create big plays on the perimeter, and it would be shame for them not to maximize the young talent on the roster that has proven capable of doing just that.
Improve Spencer Petras’ pocket presence
Iowa’s quarterback has unquestionably elevated his play in 2021 and has shown signs of producing at a high level when he is able to operate with a clean pocket. Unfortunately, not only is Petras frequently forced to throw under pressure thanks to Iowa’s blocking problems, but Iowa’s frequent pocket breakdowns have occasionally led Petras to exaggerate the danger he faces within the pocket and look to avoid pressure that has not yet materialized. Petras is a true pocket passer who is at his best when he can set his feet and make the throw without a defender in his face, but he has never excelled at throwing on the run or improvising once the pocket starts to break down. Poor footwork has been a common factor in several of Petras’ most regrettable plays during his career in the black and gold, and anything the coaches can do to help the young quarterback adapt better to the pressure he is likely to face behind his current offensive line will help elevate his performance in the weeks to come. If Iowa’s coaches can help Petras to remain collected and not press so much (see his final three drives against Purdue which ended in interceptions), the junior quarterback can continue to elevate his game throughout the remainder of the season.
Iowa is not the kind of team to reinvent its identity during a bye week, but it would be a mistake for the Hawkeyes to assume that the Purdue loss was a fluke and not an example of Iowa’s longstanding vulnerabilities finally being exposed all at once. Iowa’s strengths clearly outweigh its weaknesses in 2021, but while the Hawkeyes are capable of winning all five of their remaining games, they are also capable of losing several of them (apologies to Illinois and Northwestern). Whether Iowa was able to use its bye week to shore up some of these weak spots may very well determine whether the Hawkeyes can ultimately earn a trip to Indianapolis this December.