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Iowa’s Passing Game is One of a Kind in the Worst Way Possible

Completing passes in college football has never been easier. So why does Iowa make it look so hard?

NCAA Football: Purdue at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

The sport of college football has been taken over by the passing game. Week Six of the 2023 season, like nearly every week over the past decade plus of college football, featured several displays of efficient and electrifying aerial attacks. Between the late-game heroics of Oklahoma quarterback Dillon Gabriel in his win over Texas, the one-upmanship of Caleb Williams and Noah Fifita in the triple overtime thriller between USC and Arizona, the big play offenses displayed by LSU and Missouri in their see-saw of a game in Columbia, and the Drake Maye’s clinical disassembly of the Syracuse defense in North Carolina’s victory over the Orange, college football fans who tuned into Saturday’s games were served yet another reminder that it has never been easier to complete passes in the college football than in the game’s modern form.

Fans who watched Iowa’s bout with Purdue may have left the contest with a slightly different impression of the state of the passing game in college football, however. Iowa quarterback Deacon Hill completed a woeful six of his 21 passing attempts with none of those completions going to wide receivers, while Purdue quarterback Hudson Card threw two interceptions and several dangerous incomplete passes under pressure from Iowa’s defensive line. Iowa’s passing offense continues to be an abject disaster beset by errant passes, quarterbacks ignoring wide open receivers, back-breaking drops, and ill-timed interceptions. Combine Iowa’s atrocious passing game with the tendency for the Hawkeye defense to make life difficult for opposing quarterbacks, and Hawkeye games tend to look like a relic of football from a time before the advent of the modern passing offense decades ago.

How bad is Iowa’s passing game? Iowa has the lowest completion percentage in college football at a meager 45.9%, nearly four points behind the second-lowest team (Pittsburgh with 49.6%) and a whopping 35.1 points lower than the nation’s leader in completion percentage (Oregon with 81%). The last time Iowa had a team-wide completion percentage this low came in 1978, Bob Commings’ final season at Iowa and a time before the development of sophisticated modern passing games. Iowa leads only Navy and Air Force (two service academy teams who run triple option offenses) in passing yards per game and ranks second-last in the nation in both yards per attempt and passer rating. The only teams worse at passing the ball than Iowa are teams TRYING to be bad at passing the ball by playing glorified running backs at quarterback. A comparison of Iowa’s passing statistics to the national average (excluding Air Force, whose small sample size with only 19 passing attempts on the season skew their numbers), shows just how out of touch the Iowa passing game really is. Against Big Ten competition, Iowa’s passing numbers somehow become even worse.

The Nation’s Worst Passing Offense?

Unit Completion Percentage Yards Per Attempt Passing Yards Per Game Passer Rating
Unit Completion Percentage Yards Per Attempt Passing Yards Per Game Passer Rating
FBS High 81% 11.6 446.4 197.2
FBS Average 62% 7.7 238.36 140.61
Iowa 45.90% 5.3 129.8 97.42
Iowa vs. Big Ten Opponents 37.70% 4.7 109 81.6

How did Iowa’s passing game become so broken? The season-ending injury to Cade McNamara and elevation of second-stringer Deacon Hill to the starting position is an easy culprit, especially since Hill is completing only slightly more than a third of his passes on the year. However, Iowa’s passing game was atrocious well before Hill became the head man under center. McNamara completed only 51.1% of his passes before his injury, and Iowa ranked 116th and 121st in team-wide passer rating in 2021 and 2022 respectively. While much of the blame for Iowa’s aerial incompetence over the past few years fell on the shoulders of mistake-prone former quarterback Spencer Petras, his now look more like another symptom of a larger problem rather than the cause.

The real issues behind Iowa’s passing woes are far more systemic. For the past two seasons, the Hawkeyes have been without a true quarterback coach with offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz filling this role. Why Kirk Ferentz decided to bestow quarterback coaching duties on his son (a former offensive lineman who had never coached quarterbacks at any level and was already struggling with his offensive coordinator duties), and why he decided to double-down on that decision after Iowa produced the 123rd ranked passing offense last year in terms of yards gained, is anyone’s guess. However, Iowa’s inability to develop quarterbacks over the past four seasons or coach them on how to operate effectively within its offense must fall largely on the head of the OC/QB coach and the man who has refused to bring in a true passing game coordinator to replace him.

Iowa’s offensive scheme is also to blame for the Hawkeyes’ abysmal passing game. Iowa’s passing concepts are so out of touch with the rest of the sport that they almost seem intended to provoke outrage and bewilderment from fans and national commentators alike. The Hawkeyes de-emphasize their wide receivers more than any non-triple option team in college football, and poor recruitment, retention, and player development at that position has only compounded Iowa’s traditionally tight-end heavy approach in the passing game. Iowa’s route tree continues to be a cluttered mess, and the Hawkeyes run few if any slants, wide receiver screens, or plays designed to create easy completions. Every completion downfield seems like a monumental undertaking, either requiring perfect execution by every position group or a herculean effort from the receiver to come down with the ball for the play to be successful. One need only look at the massive drop-off in McNamara’s production between his Big Ten Championship season in 2021 at Michigan and his five-game stint as Iowa’s starting quarterback to see how thoroughly the Hawkeye offense neuters its quarterbacks.

The fact that Iowa’s passing offense has been so bad for the past four years shows that Kirk Ferentz is either running the exact type of offense he wants to or is completely clueless about how to fix the deeply rooted problems with his system. The strange thing is that it wasn’t always like this. Iowa has had several excellent quarterbacks during Ferentz’s 25-year career at Iowa, including Heisman runner-up Brad Banks, first-team All-Big Ten performer Drew Tate, and future NFL players such as Ricky Stanzi and CJ Beathard. Even Nate Stanley, Iowa’s starter from 2017-2019 who operated under a Brian Ferentz-led offense, managed to throw over 8,000 yards and nearly 70 touchdowns in his career. Stanley was a successful quarterback who had several memorable moments at Iowa that were somewhat obscured by his poor performances in a handful of important matchups. However, with the elite defense and special teams play Iowa has been blessed with over the past few years, one has to wonder whether an Iowa team that could generate Nate Stanely levels of passing production might have been able to make a legitimate push for a playoff spot.

As terrible as Iowa’s passing game has been this season, the Hawkeyes have a 5-1 record and a legitimate shot at winning the Big Ten West if they can beat Wisconsin this Saturday. However, it is hard to imagine this team making it through the remainder of its admittedly soft schedule without needlessly dropping a game or two if it continues to throw the ball as poorly as it has thus far. If Kirk and Brian Ferentz cannot find a way to fix their broken passing game and help Deacon Hill elevate his play, Hawkeye fans may yet again be wondering what this team might have achieved had it not chosen to run a passing offense so thoroughly divorced from the norms of college football in 2023.