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Can Iowa Generate Enough Offense to Sustain its Ranking?

The Hawkeye defense might be the best in the country and has the team ranked #5 in the nation. The offense, however, remains work in progress. How concerned should we be?

NCAA Football: Iowa at Iowa State Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

Two weeks into the 2021 college football season, the Iowa Hawkeyes are the #5 ranked team in the country and are widely being toasted as the class of the Big Ten. Iowa’s convincing win over their instate rivals, Oregon’s cross-country upset of #3 Ohio State, and underwhelming performances by teams like Texas A&M, Note Dame, and Cincinnati opened the door for the Hawkeyes to leap up the rankings on the strength of yet another excellent defensive performance. Naturally, optimism within the Iowa fanbase is as high as it has been since the 2015 season, and it seems increasingly realistic to ask not only whether the Hawkeyes can win the Big Ten West, but whether they can win the conference outright and compete for a slot in the College Football Playoff.

However, Iowa’s ceiling may ultimately be capped by a factor that has held the program back for years: offensive consistency. The Hawkeyes have put a respectable number of points on the board through two games (30.5 PPG, good for 60th in the country), but surprisingly few of those points have come from sustained drives which saw the Hawkeyes go the length of the field to score.

Points Scored Through Two Games

Points from Defensive Touchdowns Points of Turnovers Total Points
Points from Defensive Touchdowns Points of Turnovers Total Points
21 16 61

The Hawkeye offense has scored only 24 points without the aid of turnovers. This is only three points more than have been scored by Iowa’s defense this season, and even then, some of those 24 points came when the Hawkeye offense was gifted a short field on the basis of a strong defensive stand. The Hawkeyes are averaging only 238 yards of total offense per game (the fifth fewest of any team in college football), and their 173 yards against Iowa State were the fewest of any team in the past sixteen years to defeat an opponent ranked in the top ten. Iowa ranks dead last in the Big Ten in team passer rating (98.74) and, thanks in part to defenses loading up to defend the run out of a lack of respect for the Hawkeye passing game, also ranks last in the conference in rushing yards per game with an average of 112.5.

Still, there is reason to hope for better things to come with the Hawkeye offense. Iowa’s first two opponents boast two of the best and most experienced defenses in the country, so it should hardly be a shocker that Iowa’s offense would struggle to find consistently against formidable competition so early in the season. Additionally, Iowa spent much of the second halves of both contests holding comfortable leads which led to very conservative play-calling, giving reason to believe the offensive coaches might have made more adjustments to improve the offense as the game progressed had they not been content to nurse their leads and avoid putting any more of their scheme on film. Iowa proved that it could move the ball and score against Indiana and Iowa State when it had to; should it really be criticized for playing it safe once that game was out of hand?

Finally, Iowa’s defense might honestly be good enough to overcome most of the Hawkeyes’ offensive deficiencies. The defensive line has played like a veteran unit despite its relative lack of experience, the Hawkeye linebacking unit is playing as well as any in the country, and the secondary treats every pass thrown by an opposing QB as a chance to not only intercept the ball, but to score points as well. The defense’s capacity to force turnovers and give the offense a short field should make things easier on the Hawkeye offense all season long, just as Iowa’s all-world punter Tory Taylor’s ability to pin its opponents deep puts the Iowa defense in an advantageous position of its own. If Iowa can consistently win the turnover battle and the field position game, the offense does not need to be great to for the Hawkeyes to rack up Ws.

Yet as good as Iowa’s defense is, asking it to play at this level all season long could be a tall order. The Hawkeyes will face explosive offenses like Maryland, Purdue and (if both teams reach the conference title game) Ohio State, all of whom are competent enough to score on Iowa’s defense even if they aren’t able to turn the game into a shootout. If Iowa’s offense falters early in those games, the Hawkeyes could find themselves playing from behind, something Spencer Petras has little experience doing throughout his college career. Similarly, against strong defenses such as Penn State and Wisconsin, the Hawkeyes may succeed in holding their opponents under 20 points but could still face an uphill battle if they struggle to muster that same offensive output themselves.

The next several weeks will see the Hawkeye offense square off against defenses far less formidable than those they faced in their first two contests and could reveal whether Iowa fans should really be worried about how the team will fare on that side of the ball. In Week One, Georgia and Clemson clobbered one another to death in an ugly 7-3 contest that made both offenses look extremely inept. In Week 2, Georgia torched UAB for 56 points with its backup quarterback while Clemson, held without a touchdown against Georgia, scored seven of them against South Carolina State. Like Iowa, these teams will eventually need to prove that they can score on teams with elite defenses if they hope to win a national championship, but tune-up games against inferior competition create opportunities for a stagnant offense to find a rhythm that could carry through to games against more formidable competition down the line. Dropping 50 points on Kent State will not mean that Iowa’s offense is cured, but it will be a lot more encouraging to see Goodson and Tracy torching defenders than to watch the Hawkeyes engage in another protracted pitch battle against teams they should be able to overwhelm with their superior talent.

There is blood in the water after Ohio State’s loss last week, and the Hawkeyes must be feeling like they have a real shot to claim their first conference crown since 2004. Iowa’s offense does not have to match the level of its defense for the Hawkeyes to achieve this goal, but it will have to improve as the season goes along if Iowa wants to sustain its current momentum through the rest of 2021.