After 25 seasons as the head coach of Iowa’s football team, there are few challenges Kirk Ferentz has not faced. However, Ferentz must now overcome a new and unforeseen complication that threatens to torpedo Iowa’s season: a long-term injury to the Hawkeyes’ starting quarterback. While Ferentz has previously managed QB injuries to quarterbacks like Ricky Stanzi and Spencer Petras which kept the Hawkeye starters out of a handful of games in the past, the potential loss of McNamara for several games (if not the rest of the season) will force the veteran head coach to turn to an inexperienced and unproven quarterback to guide Iowa’s struggling offense going forward.
Sophomore Deacon Hill is the clear favorite to take over at quarterback. Hill, who transferred to Iowa from Wisconsin during the offseason, replaced McNamara after his injury in the first quarter against Michigan State and led the Hawkeyes to a victory while completing 11-27 passes for 115 yards, one touchdown, and one interception. If Hill is injured or struggles, Iowa would likely turn to sophomore Joe Labas who led Iowa in its Music City Bowl victory over Kentucky last season but missed significant practice time this autumn.
Whether Iowa sticks with Hill or gives Labas a shot, the new Hawkeye quarterback will be tasked with turning around a passing game that is struggling mightily for the fourth consecutive season. The Hawkeyes rank dead last in the Big Ten in passing yards (669), completion percentage (48.8%), yards per attempt (5.4), and team-wide passer rating (100.56). While McNamara was touted as the answer to Iowa’s offensive woes, the team’s continued struggles with him under center have raised serious questions about whether ANY quarterback Iowa could possibly attract at this point is capable of turning things around. While it’s certainly possible that Iowa’s offense is so bad that any quarterback would face similar struggles, the prospect of this passing game getting even worse without McNamara is a horrifying one for Hawkeye fans desperate for offensive improvement.
For better or worse, McNamara and Hill are not the same quarterback. While McNamara has struggled some with accuracy and decision-making this season, these flaws will likely be amplified with the less experienced Hill under center. Several of Hill’s throws were off target against Michigan State, and his interception came when he tried to force the ball to a receiver that had three defenders nearby. Hill also has a bit of young James Vandenberg in him given his tendency to throw short passes with less touch and more velocity than the situation requires.
However, that same arm strength is also a tangible upgrade over what McNamara could provide in that department. Hill was touted as having one of the strongest arms in his recruiting class, which should allow him to attack downfield and fit the ball into tight windows (assuming the pass is accurate, of course).
Furthermore, while the 258 lb. Hill is far from a dual-threat quarterback, he is still more mobile than an injured McNamara has been this season, which is why Iowa rolled Hill out so frequently against the Spartans. Hill’s impressive size and strength also puts the QB sneak back in play in short yardage situations, which has unironically been among Iowa’s most productive offensive plays in recent years.
Could Deacon Hill’s emergence also create new opportunities for some of Iowa’s other transfers? Erick All was already set to play a larger role in Iowa’s passing game after the loss od tight end Luka Lachey to injury, but the senior tight end could become especially important given his ability to make plays after the catch, which he flashed in Hill’s lone touchdown against MSU.
Meanwhile, freshman wideout Kaleb Brown is a great athlete, but has struggled to find his footing during his first year at Iowa after transferring from Ohio State. Brown has very little experience playing wide receiver and has yet to record a reception as a Hawkeye while occasionally looking out of sorts when he has been on the field. Still, between Brown’s athleticism and speed and Hill’s arm strength, could these two players, who presumably have had plenty of 2nd team reps together, start connecting on a few deep shots? If ever there was a time this season for Brown to turn the corner and emerge as a playmaker in Iowa’s offense, it may have arrived.
One thing is certain: if Hill is to keep Iowa afloat while McNamara is injured, he will need help from his teammates. Iowa’s wide receivers and tight ends combined to drop six passes against MSU, five of which came with Hill at quarterback, and three of which were on passes intended for upperclassman receiver Diante Vines. For all of the discussion about the de-emphasis of Iowa’s wideouts in the passing game, it is up to the receivers to make plays when given the opportunity, particularly when working with a backup quarterback.
Furthermore, Iowa’s running game simply HAS to improve to prevent opposing defenses from keying in on the pass and take pressure off Hill. Iowa managed only 2.3 yards per carry against Michigan State and is averaging the second fewest rushing yards per game in the conference this season with 107. Leshon Williams and Kamari Moulten have had positive moments this season, but don’t appear capable of propelling a credible rushing game against Big Ten defenses without additional help. The sooner Iowa can get injured running backs Kaleb Johnson and Jaziun Patterson back into the fold, the less pressure will be on Deacon Hill to single-handedly generate offense for the Hawkeyes, while also opening up more opportunities for Hill to attack downfield off the playaction game as opponents focus more of their energy on stopping the run.
On a similar note, Iowa’s offensive line has yet to play a single game this season in which it excelled in both run and pass blocking. More consistent play up front would go a long way to not only jumpstarting the Hawkeye running game, but giving Hill more time to go through his reads and reducing the number of panic plays the inexperienced quarterback might experience.
Finally, Iowa must once again ask its defense and special teams to perform at superhuman levels to give the team a chance to win the Big Ten West. When Iowa’s offense struggled against Michigan State with Hill under center, the defense stepped up to produce three interceptions and a forced fumble, while Cooper DeJean contributed a punt return touchdown that fundamentally shifted the game in Iowa’s favor. As colossally unfair as it is to ask Phil Parker and LeVar Woods’ units to carry the team yet again, more performances similar to what Iowa’s defense and special team showed during the second half against the Spartans would at least allow the Hawkeyes to stay competitive in their remaining games if Iowa’s offense stagnates or somehow manages to get even worse with Hill or Labas playing quarterback.
While Cade McNamara was supposed to be the savior for Iowa’s broken offense, the Hawkeyes cannot afford to let his injury derail the rest of the season. The Big Ten West is arguably the weakest it has ever been and, with the possible exception of Wisconsin, each of Iowa’s remaining opponents will be much closer in skill level to teams like Michigan State and Iowa State than they will be to Penn State. Iowa doesn’t need its starting quarterback to be a superstar, but it does need competent and consistent play from that position if it hopes to take advantage of its soft schedule and make one final run at the West division. If McNamara misses as much time as most fans expect him to, it will be up to Deacon Hill’s coaches and teammates to put the young quarterback in a position to succeed for Iowa to keep that dream alive.