With Iowa on a bye week, Hawkeye fans who wanted to spend their Saturday binging college football were unable to (or maybe “spared from”) watching their favorite team play last weekend. Those who chose not to take a Saturday off were reminded of something Iowa’s coaching staff once knew but seems to have long since forgotten: it doesn’t have to be like this. Every other team in college football, including several whose rosters have less athleticism than Iowa’s, seems to be able to execute several of the basic tenants of a modern offense. Receivers, it turns out, can be schemed open, and quarterbacks are allowed to hit them in stride when that occurs. Quarterbacks like Alabama’s Bryce Young, a pocket passer who can also channel some Big Backyard Football Energy when the moment calls for it, prove that basic improvisational skills really can be an asset when a play breaks down. While Iowa’s offense plods away for minimal or negative gains, offenses around the country race from completion to completion and from one successful run to another, with athletes playing freely within schemes complex enough to fool the defense, but simple enough for the offensive players to master. One mistake doesn’t necessarily torpedo an entire drive, and most plays don’t require all eleven players to execute everything 100% perfectly to produce a positive result. If Iowa’s coaching staff watched any college football during their time off, they would barely recognize the sport the rest of the country is playing.
In theory, Iowa’s bye week should have given the team a chance to correct some of these problems. The Hawkeyes may not be able to install a completely new offensive scheme over the course of a week, but this time off did afford the coaches to go back to the drawing board, identify the sources of Iowa’s offensive struggles, and brainstorm solutions for how to resolve them. The early signs suggest that Hawkeye fans will get more of the same; the coaching staff preached the value of staying the course during last week’s press conferences, and there are exactly zero changes to the depth chart. Still, there are a few scenarios for how Iowa’s bye week might have played out which could impact whether the offense improves in the coming weeks.
1. Execution, execution, execution
In this scenario, Iowa’s coaching staff didn’t spend its bye week reevaluating its depth chart or getting creative with the play book, but instead focused on trying to polish the turd that is the Hawkeye offense. This approach assumes that the coaches have spent the 2022 campaign calling the right offensive plays for the right eleven players on the field, but that the unit’s production has been hampered by a lack of execution. Iowa’s coaches and players have repeated that line ad nauseum through the first six games, and there’s certainly a degree of truth to it; the Hawkeyes have run plenty of plays that might have produced positive results had it not been for poor reads by the quarterback, goal line fumbles by running backs, missed blocks by the offensive line, or wide receivers slipping and falling instead of strolling untouched into the end zone. With an offense as young as Iowa’s, there is something to be said for spending a bye week drilling down fundamentals and finding 10-12 plays your team can execute perfectly every time—something the Hawkeyes desperately need this season.
Still, it would be obtuse to say that Iowa’s problems start and end with execution. The Hawkeyes aggressively tip their hand with personnel packages, call slow-developing plays behind the line of scrimmage at tragically inopportune times, and have some of the most congested and least creative route trees in college football. It would also be a mistake not to at least entertain the possibility that other scholarship players might possibly be able to outproduce some of the starters if given a chance (after all, can they really play much worse?). Iowa may seem some small offensive improvements if the coaching staff chose to double-down on the status quo, but it’s unlikely to produce the kind of progress that turn the season around or satisfy a fanbase that increasingly views the coaching staff as stubborn and out-of-touch.
2. Same players, different plays
Sometimes a team can make big changes without changing its lineup. In this scenario, the Hawkeyes might have spent the bye week reevaluating how they can best play to the strengths of the players they have, asking questions like:
Are we legally allowed to throw the ball to someone other than Sam LaPorta on 3rd down? Or run out of the shotgun when it isn’t 3rd down?
Hey, that Arland Bruce fella sure is shifty, is there a way to get him the ball in space? How about Keagan Johnson or Diante Vines if they ever return from injury?
Did we delete the file that had all the Wildcat plays we ran back in 2020?
Phil Parker, you’re a smart guy who watches our offense every day in practice. Are we doing things before the snap that make it easy for our opponents to guess what play we’re running?
Are we SURE Spencer Petras can throw while rolling out to his left?
Iowa’s coaching staff knew the offense of 2021 wasn’t going to cut it in 2022 and tried to spend the offseason making small changes that would help unlock the attack this season. These measures have obviously failed. A complete schematic overhaul is admittedly a lot to ask for in one week, but the coaches might have a least gone back to the drawing board to figure out whether their play calls and play designs are putting the team in the best position to succeed.
3. Next man in
Iowa’s depth chart may not have changed between Weeks 6 and 8, but Iowa spent much of the season putting out depth charts that did not reflect the lineups that actually started come gameday. In this scenario, Iowa spent at least a portion of the bye week earnestly reevaluating whether they have given the right number of snaps to the right players this season so they can spend this week of practice breaking in any new lineup combinations. Given a week off to study film, might George Barnett have found five offensive linemen who can play next to one another and consistently block their opponent? With the coaches focused more on player evaluations and less on preparing for a specific opponent, might Kaleb Johnson have the kind of breakout practice that convinces the staff he deserves to be the feature back? If Johnson and Vines are likely to remain out for an extended period of time, might the coaches draw up a package or two for stud athletes like Cooper DeJean, Riley Moss, or Xavier Nwankpa to get the occasional touch on offense in hopes of generating explosive plays? And since the prospect of starting Alex Padilla or Joey Labas seems so unthinkable to the coaches, might the coaches consider giving freshman Carson May 2nd-team reps to start grooming him to potentially take over for Petras next season?
Nothing Iowa’s coaching staff has said or done this season or in prior years suggests wholesale personnel changes out of the bye week, and it is legitimately possible that the coaches are actually putting their best eleven men on the field every Saturday. It is also true that dedicating precious practice time to auditioning backups who haven’t yet demonstrated themselves to be better than the starters trades off with reps the starters desperately need to get the offense in gear. Even still, how many times do you have to watch something fail before asking yourself whether a different approach might yield better results? If the coaches start a 2nd-string player and determine he is worse than the 1st-stringer, there is nothing preventing them from going back to the original starter. Iowa coaches may never know whether they have another Charlie Jones on their hands: a player capable of producing far more than expected if given the proper opportunity to do so.
What should fans expect coming out of the bye week?
Iowa fans can be forgiven for not expecting many changes coming out of the bye week, particularly given the coaching staff’s apparent hostility to seriously considering personnel changes. The smart money says that Iowa charted a bye week course that lies somewhere between scenarios 1-2, doubling down on their current personnel and offensive philosophy while also trying to work in a handful of new plays or concepts to address some of the problems they have encountered through the first six weeks. Whether these half-measures will lead to improvements is anyone’s guess, but one thing is certain; when your team has the worst total offense in college football, there is basically nowhere left to go but up.