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Hawkeye Football: The Iowa Offense is Fixable

The Hawkeye offense has been broken for years, but it’s not beyond repair.

Iowa v Northwestern
It’s not rocket surgery.
Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

It’s no secret: the Iowa offense is broken. Has been for going on three years now and so far, nothing has been done to actually fix it.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not fixable.

The numbers on the season have been terrible. As in, unbelievably terrible. The Hawkeyes are dead last nationally in total offense and by a wide margin. Iowa is average just 225.3 yards per game on the season - a full 33.5 yards per game less than the second worst team in America. Or put another way, Iowa is more than three first down worse than the next worse team.

But it’s actually worse than that. The Hawkeyes have totaled just 110 first downs on the season. That too is worst in the nation. The second worst team, Navy, has 114 first downs on the year. Third worst? Kent State with 133.

That’s due in part to Iowa’s 27% conversion percentage on third down. That’s third-worst nationally and has helped contribute to the Hawkeyes running the third fewest plays of any team in the country, ahead of only Kentucky and Navy. It’s difficult to gain yards and give your defense a rest when you simply aren’t running enough plays.

That’s come as the offense has become the least efficient in America. At just 4.0 yards per play, Iowa is dead last in the country. The most efficient offense, LSU’s, is averaging 8.1 yards per play, meaning every time the Tigers snap the ball, they’re likely to move it more than twice as far as the Hawkeyes. The second worst team in America, East Carolina, is averaging 4.23 yards per play.

The passing game is the primary driver here with the Hawkeyes averaging just 4.91 yards per pass attempt on the season. There too, only East Carolina is worse at 4.87 yards per attempt.

And that’s where we get to the part about this all being fixable.

The Iowa rushing attack has shown glimpses of being good enough. The Hawkeyes are averaging 3.39 yards per rush, which isn’t good, but it’s better than dead last. And it would be meaningfully better if teams weren’t able to stack 8 in the box with regularity and completely ignore the passing attack.

Even then, we’ve seen the Hawkeyes turn loaded boxes into big gains thanks to well-executed blocks and decent burst from their three-headed monster at running back. On Kaleb Johnson’s big run against Purdue, the Boilermakers had eight guys in the box with a ninth cheating off a WR to the edge of the box. The line blocks it nearly perfectly with Erick All sealing the backside, opening a crease right down central and only a single high safety left for Johnson to beat. He does.

Sometimes even poor blocking can have great results if the backs have good enough vision.

On Leshon Williams’ big run against Wisconsin, it’s a similar story with Iowa playing heavy personnel and allowing the Badgers to stuff 9 into the box. The play is nearly blown up (foreshadowing a bit here), but Williams makes a good cut back and then again, there is only a single high safety home for him to beat for the score.

But those heavy boxes don’t always end in touchdowns. Iowa’s 3.4 yards per carry would seem to indicate the opposite.

They would also seem ripe for play-action passes that leave the defense equally exposed to big plays. The catch here is that Iowa isn’t using a ton of play-action and when they are, Brian Ferentz seems to be favoring long-developing plays looking for the home run.

This was a staple of the Ken O’Keefe offense, but defenses are so disrespectful of Iowa’s passing game right now that even off hard play-action, linebackers and safeties are crashing full speed and able to get home on QB Deacon Hill rather than being caught out of position for big gains.

The solution? More fast-developing plays and shorter passes.

Iowa has been successful with Deacon Hill at the helm when he is able to make rhythm throws. That goes beyond just using play-action, but doing so puts him into motion and almost forces a rhythm throw rather than sitting back in the pocket and thinking through the progression.

On the season, Hill has attempted 33 play-action passes. He’s completed 16 for a 48.5% completion percentage. That isn’t good, but it’s markedly better than the abysmal 39.7% completion percentage on pure pocket passes.

The interesting part, however, is that despite the higher completion percentage on play-action, Iowa is running more deep passes on such plays. Hill is averaging 6.1 yards per attempt on play-action passes, significantly more than the 3.7 yards per attempt on pocket passes. His touchdown percentages is at ~6% on play-action passes vs just 1% on pocket passes.

He’s been sacked three times off of play-action vs. eight times on pocket passes - both translate to ~10% of dropbacks. The key differential has been his interception rate. Hill is throwing an interception on 9% of his passes off of play-action vs only 1% on pocket passes.

Perhaps that explains Iowa using play-action on roughly 30% of passing plays despite the successes seen when doing so. Kirk Ferentz is averse to turnovers at his core and throwing an interception on basically every ten passes is likely to turn him off to the concept.

Again, the solution? Not to avoid play-action altogether, but to change how you’re using it. Hill and the Hawkeyes have been very successful off of play-action on the season when doing it in ways that make sense given the personnel.

Earlier in the year, that meant heavily targeting star tight end Erick All. He was Iowa’s most dynamic playmaker with a big body and athleticism to win contested passes. Brian and Deacon went to him often with much success.

That was both out of the traditional tight end spot and when they lined him up in the backfield as an h-back.

Those shot plays were down the field, but they were rhythm throws for Hill. He had one read and in both cases, if they All was not open there really is no other option to throw to.

That’s not a recipe that works without an elite athlete in the spot. Which is to say, when you’re working with 3rd and 4th string tight ends, those plays likely need to come out of the playbook. And largely, they have.

But Brian is still trying to use some of the stuff that worked with All in the lineup. For instance, this play-action seam shot to All against Purdue was a beauty.

Here you have three vertical routes with Vines cutting underneath and Hill is simply asked to make one read on the coverage. He makes a rhythm throw and All comes down with the contested catch. That’s replicable even without the superstar at tight end.

So Iowa ran the same play against Northwestern last weekend. The difference this time was NW showed man when Ragaini went in motion (more on this in a second) so Hill throws to Ragaini, who should have a man defender trailing him across the formation instead of throwing the seam to Ostrenga who is holding the safety.

The read is probably correct, the throw was not and the play design having Ragaini as your contested catch guy was poor. The result is an interception.

When Iowa ran this action with All as the tight end up the seam, they got a zone look and Hill fit the pass into his window. But they also ran Seth Anderson as the motion guy. Anderson isn’t meaningfully bigger than Ragaini, but he is better suited to go up for a contested catch down the field (Ragaini is great over the middle).

The other notable difference is Vines as an in-breaking route to act as a relief valve in the first example. In the second, there is no check down option. Hill has to throw a deep shot here or throw it away. While that might force Hill to make a throw, it doesn’t exactly set Iowa up for success in the one stat Kirk Ferentz cares about on offense: ball security.

Instead, Iowa should be giving Hill a quick read underneath on virtually every roll out. Below, Brian dials up the same motion out of Ragaini sending him on the same wheel route up the sideline. This time NW shows zone with nobody trailing Ragaini across the formation so the deep shot comes out of the progression seemingly immediately.

As Hill rolls out, he then only needs to check the depth of the linebacker to choose between Johnny Pascuzzi, who is running an in route at roughly nine yards, just in front of the sticks, and the safety valve, Addison Ostrenga who releases off the right edge into the flat. One read, in motion, rhythm throw for an easy pitch and catch and five yards on 1st and 10.

These are the types of throws Hill can make with regularity which can slow down the defenders crowding the box and given Iowa some running room.

It’s a very similar look to what gave the Hawkeyes their only touchdown of the day. There, however, the Hawkeyes opt for more misdirection with Ragaini motioning away from the rollout. With his defender following him in man coverage, Hill knows pre-snap that Ostrenga should come open underneath as his defender too is being asked to sift through the muck in the middle of the field to keep up in man.

He cannot and it’s again and easy read, easy toss in rhythm and six points for the Hawkeyes.

That play works well in short yardage, but it’s a design that could easily work out of different personnel and in different situations. Brian seems to lean on play-action out of heavy personnel while throwing from the pocket in 11 personnel with a spread look or even an empty backfield. That can work on occasion, but it doesn’t have to be the only time Iowa goes misdirection or uses the PA pass.

Again, simple tweaks would allow Iowa to run very similar plays to what are in the playbook with slightly different looks for a defense. In the below example, Iowa is again looking to get their star tight end Erick All the ball with him isolated to one side of the field. They run a pair of tight ends to the left with a tight stack of WRs to the right. In a bit of a rarity, they run play-action with a single back and no fullback in for protection.

The result is a pair of receivers flowing across the field (both covered, but they’re holding defenders), the inside tight end releasing as the safety valve (again, covered) and All running a nice out route past the sticks. It’s again a pretty simple read for Hill, who can get out of the pocket and make the throw in rhythm.

In this case, All is going up for a sideline catch against a corner. That’s a good matchup for the big-bodied tight end. But it’s not a bad matchup for say Seth Anderson or even Diante Vines. Both have had nice sideline grabs this year and putting either in tight off the line in the same spot as All is going to get you the same defensive look. Which is to say, they’re going to get one-on-one with a corner on the sideline.

If they don’t, THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT IOWA SHOULD BE WANTING. If the move from 12 personnel (1 back, 2 tight ends) to 11 (3 receivers) gets a defense out of a base 4-3 into a nickel package, Iowa’s run game benefits. And that’s the rub.

Iowa can do what they have had success doing with different personnel and open up other parts of the offense.

And it’s not like they haven’t had any success running play-action to non-tight ends already. Against Minnesota, the Hawkeyes came out immediately in 21 personnel and threw a nice, easy out route to Diante Vines for a first down off of play-action.

Those throws are there for the taking. And if the defense finally does take them away, again you have opened up what you really wanted to do all along.

That’s not to say Iowa should stop throwing PA to the tight end. This is Tight End U and hitting them off of PA as an extension of the running game should absolutely be a staple of the offense going forward. In fact, they should be doing more of it. But those should be shorter developing plays designed to release some pressure rather than be home run shots like we saw with All.

And they should be mixed in with plays designed to get other players the ball in space as Ostrenga and Pascuzzi are great, but they are not the athletes of Lachey or All. Plays like the one below to get Kaleb Johnson some room to operate should be integral down the stretch.

Perhaps just as importantly as the play-action passing game, Brian needs to find a way to simplify the pure pocket, drop back passing game for Hill. He has shown an ability to throw a decent ball when in rhythm and on time. That has seemed to be a rarity when dropping back and that has as lot to do with play design and formation dressing.

When the Hawkeyes line up in an empty set, there is no fooling the defense. Seven and sometimes eight defenders are dropping in coverage on four or five pass catchers. Iowa doesn’t have the horses to get guys wide open in those scenarios and the line has not held up well enough to allow Hill to thoroughly go through those progressions without things collapsing around him.

Base 11 personnel with an offset back at least presents the option of a run for the defense to defend. Iowa doesn’t have to go play-action to throw out of the look, but again, this is the simple stuff other offenses do with regularity to open up the run game and freeze defense in the passing game just for a moment.

Out of that look, Iowa was able to draw up their lone truly good looking pass of the day against Northwestern out of a pure dropback pass. In 11, Hill has Leshon Williams to his left and Ostrenga in line to the right. There is again a tight stack of WRs to the left with Anderson alone to the right. Northwestern shows zone and drops into cover three and again, Hill is asked to simply read one player to his left.

He watches the corner drop to a deep third and knows immediately he is throwing underneath to Kaleb Brown, who secures the catch on a perfectly placed ball in the middle of the zone.

That route is there because Iowa came out in a personnel grouping and formation that put playmakers in space with an easy read for Hill to make. If Iowa runs that same route combination out of 12 personnel with Ostrenga and Pascuzzi running the routes of Ragaini and Brown, Northwestern is likely to give Iowa a different look and force Hill to throw into a tighter window.

Brian can help himself and help his players by mixing things up more and taking the easy plays. That goes beyond the play-action passing game and into easy throws for Hill. Things like quick slants when defenses show soft coverage on guys like Anderson, Brown or Ragaini should be a no-brainer. More diverse screen calls to the receivers are now a must without All available to break middle screens for big gains. And running out of the gun in lighter personnel to set up another facet of the play-action game.

None of that takes away from Iowa’s identity or goes beyond what the athletes are capable of executing. Most of it is already in the playbook, it’s just being stuck behind empty sets for passing situations, heavy groupings for short-yardage and long-developing play-action passes that leave Hill susceptible to a pass rush.

It’s been bad, but it’s fixable.