After playing two top 25 opponents to open the season, it was fair to expect some letdown from the #5 Iowa Hawkeyes (3-0, 1-0). While the 30-7 win over Kent State (1-2) didn’t provide much catharsis by way of an offensive explosion, it provided plenty of clarity in its own right.
Every team is bad except Iowa— Jason Kirk, big The Alliance fan (@thejasonkirk) September 19, 2021
There’s plenty of sarcasm in Kirk’s six-word tweet - after all, it doesn’t declare Iowa good - there’s truth in it: right now, nobody knows who they are better than Iowa. Sometimes that is all one is hoping for in September.
Iowa is a complementary football team without ever looking or feeling complimentary.
I was encouraged Brian Ferentz came out gunning, as Spencer Petras finished with a season-high 36 passing attempts (most since the loss to Northwestern) and completed them at a higher clip (69%, nice) than in any other game he’s started. We’ll worry about the yards/attempt later in the column, but the effort was made and sometimes that is what matters.
Tyler Goodson looked electric in his highest-yardage outing of his career. His 46-yarder to open the offensive scoring was a delightful introduction to Kent State’s run defense and a way to establish that Iowa could probably sustain their offense on the ground and come away with the victory.
The defense obliged in that respect, though they (Riley Moss) was caught a little flat-footed in the drive just after Goodson’s above run. The “pack of anonymous wolves” along the line tallied a score - a safety on an errant snap - for a third straight game. Something I believe last happened in 2017. The linebackers also looked great as Jestin Jacobs and Jack Campbell combined to force a fumble at the goal line which represented the Golden Flashes’ best chance at making it a game in the second half. The Hawks notched seven sacks, for good measure.
Yet there’s always room for improvement.
Riley Moss: “We played as a team today, I’m happy we were able to get the W. We still haven’t played a perfect 60 minutes yet, in our eyes, that’s very exciting.”— Quinn Douglas (@Quinn_Douglas_) September 18, 2021
As for what made such a big win a slog, especially on offense, for much of the 60 minutes, it essentially stems from risk aversion.
Ivory Kelly-Martin fumbled twice yesterday. The first stalled a drive just outside the red zone while the second nearly derailed Iowa’s 95-yard, 8-plus-minute drive just before half. Unfortunately for IKM - whose fumble-itis date back to 2018, when two fumbles contributed to Iowa’s loss to Northwestern - he was replaced by Gavin Williams who looked the part in 7 touches for 31 yards. If Iowa is going to contend for a Big Ten title, a reliable backup will need to emerge behind Tyler Goodson.
And the passing, whoa, the passing. Spencer Petras had just 5.8 yards/attempt.
Another that's pretty clear on the re-watch: Iowa went short in the passing game primarily by design, and some of the time it made sense, others not so much. Kent St had a lot of zone coverages where there were easy underneath yards for RB15 & RB21 on little under routes— Hawkeye Gamefilm (@hawkeyegamefilm) September 19, 2021
How much of it is Petras, Brian Ferentz’s playcalling, or wideouts’ inability to gain separation before or after the catch, is tricky for the layman to discern. Yet it’s past time to believe he’s not doing what is asked. His best abilities - gripping and ripping on an open first read - play into Kirk & Brian Ferentz’s worst tendency: avoiding risk.
. @BHGP @hawkeyegamefilm Iowa gets their ninth straight win. Lots of underneath routes to keep the clock moving as Iowa keeps the ball for 36+ minutes. No turnovers from the quarterback once again. pic.twitter.com/W7l7KgzBXH— Thad Nelson (@tnels20) September 18, 2021
It’s become increasingly clear Iowa leverages the passing game to achieve “balance” in a ball control offense. 77% of his attempts came inside 10 yards. Only 4 by Thad’s chart come across the middle. These are, broadly speaking, high floor (low turnover chance)-low ceiling (limited yard-after-catch opportunity), throws. They are achievable because Petras has the arm to get them there.
At one point, a Kirk quote was relayed, “here, punting is not a sin” and really, that sums up Iowa’s offensive philosophy as succinctly as possible. The best thing which can happen with an offensive possession is obviously put points on the board. The worst is Iowa does not punt.
It is the ultimate effort in control, as getting to a punt helps establish where the opponent will start vs. turning it over allows the opponent’s next possession begins.
And that is why Iowa knows themselves better than any other team in the country right now, to the tune of 9 straight wins. It’s the third longest of Kirk’s career and one of the longest in the country.
So why not ride it?
Iowa is at the precipice of taking complementary football to its logical conclusion: incredible defense with an offense built around allowing the defense to be incredible. Iowa’s had other versions where they operated like this but not to this degree of playmaking all across the defense while it remains so isolated to 1 player on offense (Tyler Goodson). At some point, Iowa will be tested to fill it up or get a key score in the fourth quarter and the evidence is mounting that Spencer Petras is unlikely to be that guy.
That’s why it’s so important to ride this thing: 1) the longer the ride, the later it’ll be before clutch plays are required and 2) maybe, just maybe, he can swing the evidence in his favor.
We’ll know soon enough.