A lot can change in three weeks. Coming off its win over #3 Penn State, the Iowa football program was ranked #2 in the nation, was the clear favorite to win the Big Ten West, and looked like a team that could legitimately make a push towards the College Football Playoff. Now, the Hawkeyes are nursing a two-game losing streak, are winless against Big Ten West opponents, are functionally eliminated from playoff contention, and will need help from other teams in order to earn a trip to Indianapolis.
The source of Iowa’s struggles is not difficult to identify. The Hawkeye offense has gone ice cold over the past two games, producing a total of 14 points and only 351 yards in losses to unranked opponents in Purdue and Wisconsin. Over the past two games Iowa has committed seven turnovers, surrendered ten sacks and sixteen tackles for loss, and averaged a mere 1.67 yards per carry. Any hope that the Hawkeye coaching staff might have used its bye week to make meaningful improvements to Iowa’s offense was quickly dashed during the early stages of the Wisconsin game, in which Iowa gained only seventeen yards and one first down during the first half.
The Hawkeyes’ scoring woes can be attributed to both the structure and execution of the offense. Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz called one of the worst games of his career against the Badgers and proved unable or unwilling to adapt to what the defense threw at them. Hearing the broadcasters remark about the predictability of Iowa’s play calling and the extent to which the Wisconsin defenders knew exactly what the Hawkeyes were going to run only confirmed what Hawkeye fans could clearly observe. Iowa rarely attempted to attack downfield, the coaches struggled to find plays that would give Petras enough time in the pocket, and the team consistently failed to get the ball to playmakers like Tyler Goodson and Keagan Johnson in space.
One sequence in the second half perfectly incapsulated Iowa’s play calling problems. On a pivotal third-and-short play in Wisconsin territory, Iowa handed the ball off to fullback Monte Pottebaum who failed to pick up the first down. After taking a timeout to draw up the correct play for an important fourth down attempt, the coaches proceeded to call a second fullback dive which, predictably, came up short of the first down. This sequence was eerily similar to one the previous week in which Iowa turned the ball over on downs after failing to convert on two consecutive QB sneaks. Kirk Ferentz stated after the game that the staff believed doubling down on the fullback dive to be the best call for that moment in the game which, if true, speaks to a remarkable shortage of offensive creativity that has afflicted the team.
However, the problems extend beyond the play calling and the design of the offense. Even the best play calls can be short-circuited by poor blocking, and Iowa’s offensive line has repeatedly struck out when asked to open up holes for Tyler Goodson or provide protection for Petras. Iowa’s tackles were consistently beaten off the edge, and the offensive line proved prone to frequent communication breakdowns and missed assignments which gave free rushers a clean shot at the Hawkeye ballcarriers. It’s unclear what if anything the Hawkeyes can do to address these problems; the cavalry is not coming in the form of midseason replacement players, and the coaches have shuffled through several combinations along the line without finding one that works. The loss of players like Mark Kallenberger, Ezra Miller, and Jeff Jenkins over the past few seasons has left the offensive line with few veteran options to choose from, and players like Mason Richman and Connor Colby, who will eventually develop into quality Big Ten starters, are simply out of their depth at this stage in the careers.
Iowa’s blocking problem is compounded by Spencer Petras’ struggles in dealing with pressure. Petras is at his worst when asked to improvise and escape a broken pocket, and fans can likely count on one hand how many times he has produced positive plays under such circumstances during his Iowa career. Petras lack the mobility needed to escape the pocket and scramble for a first down, his accuracy plummets when throwing on the run, and he tends to panic and rush his mechanics when facing pressure. Some fans have called for the more mobile backup quarterback Alex Padilla to replace Petras, but Padilla has completed fewer than a third of his passes during his Iowa career, and freshman Deuce Hogan, for better or worse, has clearly yet to win the confidence of the coaching staff and has thrown only one pass this season.
Iowa’s ill-timed offensive implosion has already done major damage to a season that until recently seemed ripe with potential. The Hawkeyes have a championship-caliber defense, but an offense that is incapable of standing on its own feet without constant support from that unit. The Hawkeye defense made several important plays on Saturday, including holding the Badgers to field goals in the redzone and denying Wisconsin points with a goal line stand in the second quarter. Yet all of these victories were ultimately for naught as the Hawkeye offense failed to capitalize by generating points. Iowa is attempting to highlight its strengths on defense and special teams by playing conservatively on offense but repeated three-and-outs and turnovers do nothing but put the defense in impossible situations by denying them rest and giving opposing offenses favorable field position.
Iowa’s offense is never going to be explosive or high-flying by design, but there is absolutely no reason why a pro style attack has to suffer from such inconsistency. Poor execution and play design are not inherent features of the offense the Hawkeyes want to run, and it’s worth asking why the coaching staff has been unable to either install more effective plays or properly teach the players how to execute the existing ones. Iowa fans who watched the game against Wisconsin saw one program with a clear offensive identity (run-heavy, power football) and another team whose offense has devolved into a race to see how quickly it can send punter Tory Taylor back on to the field. The Iowa coaching staff is faced with a choice to either adapt or die. The Hawkeyes must either find answers quickly or resign themselves to squandering the team’s potential and once again finishing in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten West.