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The Morning After: New Year, Same Hawkeyes

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The Hawkeyes come up short in another big game despite an impressive showing from the defense.

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More of the same in a new year.
Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK

Dance with who brung ya’. Or something along those lines. I can’t recall if it was a Norm-ism or not, but it sure sounds like it would have been. And it seems a perfect encapsulation of Saturday’s Citrus Bowl.

The Hawkeyes got to Orlando on the back of a tremendous defense and very good special teams play. They weren’t there in spite of an incompetent offense, they were there because of that offense. And that’s largely what we saw again in the final game of the season.

The Iowa defense was again tremendous. After giving up a frustrating first-possession touchdown on a 13-play, 80-yard drive that went on for almost seven and a half minutes, Phil Parker’s group buckled down and did what they’ve done all season: stifle opposing offenses and put out fires. They held a Kentucky offense that averaged more than 33 points per game to only 20 on Saturday, despite the Wildcats getting a short field on a Spencer Petras interception at the Iowa 21-yard line in the second quarter.

On the other side of the ball, however, it was also more of the same. Without Tyler Goodson and Keagan Johnson, the Hawkeyes were without their two best playmakers on Saturday. Goodson’s absence, while notable, wasn’t as painful as perhaps expected. The Hawkeyes rushed for 173 yards as the offensive line looked improved with bowl prep, but the passing game again struggled. Mightily.

Spencer Petras finished 19 of 30 for 211 yards and a touchdown as the line kept him clean all afternoon. The Wildcats managed not a single sack or QB hurry. And yet Petras struggled to do much. Whether it be his tendencies, the play calls or the scheme more broadly, Iowa simply didn’t go downfield much at all on Saturday. Petras threw only four passes beyond 20 yards on the afternoon, but one of those was a hail Mary to end the first half.

As you can see from Thad’s data, TE Sam LaPorta was far and away Petras’ favorite target. LaPorta is a tremendous player as evidenced by his 122 yards on 7 receptions. The highlight of the game for the Hawkeyes came in the fourth quarter when LaPorta took a screen pass from Petras 37 yards to the house to give Iowa a 17-13 lead.

But Petras got a bit overly infatuated with LaPorta, throwing into double coverage multiple times and passing over wide open receivers others times in favor of staring down his favorite target.

Despite the struggles and criticisms for Petras, the Hawkeyes out-gained Kentucky on the day and Iowa’s signal-caller completed a higher percentage of passes than Kentucky’s Will Levis. The real struggle for Iowa came on third down. The Hawkeyes started 0 for their first 5 on third down and finished the day just 4 of 11 on third down conversions.

That’s been a theme throughout the year, along with difficulties converting in the red zone. And that gets at the core of things for this group. The defense has been tremendous and yet the offense has been sporadic at best. At times, things have been entirely predictable. At the worst possible times, however, Iowa has erred on the side of breaking tendency and convention. The offense will put together an impressive drive or dial up the perfect call, only to stall out inside the 10-yard line, botch a quarterback sneak or turn to the passing game on third and short.

And that’s the rub for Hawkeye fans. This season was never supposed to be a special one, but that came within grasp given how well things played out early on. We all knew the rankings were too high and the defense was dragging the offense along for the ride, but anything even resembling consistent competence from the offensive side of the ball could have resulted in an incredible finish to what could have been a special season.

If this was a singular instance, perhaps it could be brushed off. But it’s not. This is a trend at Iowa. Things are predictable, until they’re not. But not in a good way. There are always runs on 2nd and 10 after a first down incompletion. There are always three straight runs on a possession with less than four minutes and a lead. There is always outside zone into the boundary, screens on third and long and line checks only into runs. And any time those tendencies don’t hold true, nothing good seems to come of it.

Some of that is on Brian Ferentz, but some of it just is what it is and has been for more than 20 years. The offense is almost never the bright spot and the defense is almost never a concern.

It’s a new year, but it’s the same old Hawkeyes.