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Iowa’s Offensive Struggles Start Up Front. The Solution May Lie Downfield.

Opposing defenses are relentlessly attacking the line of scrimmage, and Iowa’s line has struggled to deal with it. Could the deep ball help provide some relief?

Syndication: HawkCentral Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen via Imagn Content Services, LLC

“Underwhelming” may be the best word to describe Iowa’s 24-14 victory over Colorado State. A spirited second half helped the Hawkeyes avoid the type of upsets that befell Clemson, Texas A&M, and Iowa State this week and dodge some of the questions facing Oklahoma, Auburn, and Fresno State after their near-upsets went down to the wire. Still, it was jarring to see Iowa trailing at half to a team that lost by 19 points to FCS South Dakota State and lost to a Vanderbilt team that Georgia later eviscerated 62-0. The Hawkeyes are 4-0 and ranked 5th in the country despite having played a difficult early schedule, but the team clearly has room for grow it if hopes to compete for a conference championship and a spot in the playoff.

While Iowa’s defense did not play a perfect game against Colorado State, the bulk of the team’s issues clearly reside with its offense. Iowa ranks 122nd out of 130 teams in total offense (293 yards per game), 119th in yards per play (4.61), 113th in passing offense (171.8 yards per game), and 104th in rushing offense (121.25 yards per game). The Big Ten’s best offense (Ohio State) is averaging nearly twice as many yards per game as the Hawkeyes are at 559.3. Iowa is playing championship-caliber defense but has shown nowhere near the levels of offensive consistency one would expect to see from a Top Five team.

While Iowa’s offensive struggles can be attributed to several factors, perhaps the most glaring issue lies with the play of the offensive line. Tyler Linderbaum may be one of the best interior linemen in college football, but the rest of the front five has struggled mightily to elevate their play to match him. Iowa is allowing the fourth most sacks (2.25) and tackles for loss (7.25) per game in the Big Ten and its offensive line was consistently beaten at the point of attack by Colorado State’s defensive front, surrendering eight tackles for loss and three sacks while allowing Iowa’s ballcarriers to gain a mere 1.7 yards per carry. The line seemed mystified at times by the Rams’ uneven defensive fronts (something it similarly struggled with against Indiana and Iowa State) and frequently failed to pick up the pass rush and give quarterback Spencer Petras a clean pocket to throw from. Early season difficulties against veteran defenses like Indiana and Iowa State are certainly excusable, but it was jarring to watch a Mountain West defense play more physically and aggressively up front than their Hawkeye counterparts on Saturday.

Iowa’s offensive line struggles are hampering its offense in several ways. First, the Hawkeye front five is failing to create running lanes for Tyler Goodson, causing Iowa’s ground game to stall out. Goodson is regularly met by defenders at or behind the line of scrimmage and is forced to dance and juke around the backfield as he waits in vain for his offensive line to create cutback lanes that never materialize. Goodson has been largely dependent on big plays to find success running the ball this season, as Iowa’s inability to open holes for him on its patented outside zone and between-the-tackle run plays makes it difficult for him to gain any ground on most of his carries. Some of the blame for the running game’s struggles falls on Goodson (at a certain point he needs to recognize the deficiencies of his offensive line and revert to more north/south running), but the problems clearly start up front.

Furthermore, Iowa’s pass protection woes have added additional complications to an already shaky aerial attack. Spencer Petras is arguably at his weakest when the pocket breaks down or when forced to throw on the run, and the offensive line’s inability to consistently create clean pockets has led to several sacks and errant throws throughout the first four games. Iowa’s tackles have particularly struggled to contain edge rushers, a weakness which several upcoming conference opponents are more than capable of exploiting.

There are reasons to believe Iowa’s offensive line will improve as the season progresses. Senior guard Kyler Schott missed his first two games and has seen limited playing time in the last two contests but should provide an immediate upgrade at right guard once he returns to the starting lineup. Young players like true freshman Connor Colby, redshirt freshman Mason Richman, and redshirt sophomores Justin Britt and Nick DeJong should continue to grow as they receive more snaps. Iowa’s coaches also have a proven track record of developing offensive lines mid-season; the 2016 offensive line was dominated by FCS North Dakota State at the point of attack and gave up six sacks in a loss to Northwestern only to rally and win the Joe Moore Award for the nation’s most outstanding offensive line, while Iowa’s guards and center were abused by Michigan and Penn State in 2019 only to grow leaps and bounds before season’s end. Whether new offensive line coach George Barnett can oversee a similar turnaround remains to be seen, but the unit must reach its potential for Iowa’s offense to improve.

In the meantime, Iowa may have uncovered a formula to alleviate pressure on its young offensive line: throwing deep. While the front five has struggled this season, they have also had to deal with teams consistently selling out against the run and blitzing heavily on obvious passing downs due to Iowa’s opponents having no fear of being beaten over the top. Rumors of wide receivers’ frustration with Iowa’s quarterbacks not getting them the ball when open downfield have been prevalent over past few seasons (see here, here, and here), and defenses have every incentive to sell out on attacking the line of scrimmage to stop Iowa’s All-Conference running back and overwhelm its young offensive line when they have no fear of being beaten over the top.

The question surrounding Spencer Petras and the deep ball has always been about whether he wants to throw it, not whether he can. It’s no coincidence that Petras’ best performances in 2020 (against Illinois and Wisconsin) came in the games where he posted his highest yards per attempt totals of the season, and after watching Petras connect on several deep shots to his receivers over the past few weeks, it’s worth asking why the Hawkeyes don’t make the deep ball a larger part of their offensive identity.

Several broadcasters have noted that Iowa’s receivers have broken open on deep routes this season only for Petras to instead check down to his running backs or tight ends in the flat, and Petras has shown a tendency to lock onto his first read which can lead to him missing players open downfield.

However, if Petras is willing to air it out more frequently and if the coaching staff can find ways to get dynamic weapons like Keagan Johnson (two catches for 92 yards and a touchdown against CSU) involved in the offense, it could make defenses think twice about crowding the line of scrimmage and take some of the pressure off Iowa’s inexperienced offensive line. Iowa’s front five must improve for the Hawkeyes to claim the conference crown, and they will have to prove capable of giving Petras enough time to throw downfield for this strategy to be effective. Still, empowering Petras to attack with the long ball may be one of best ways to make the line’s job easier as they continue to develop.