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The Morning After: Rorschach Test

The Hawkeyes looked terrible Saturday. They also looked great. Depending on your perspective.

Western Michigan v Iowa
You can tell a lot about your fan perspective by how you viewed Saturday’s win.
Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

Saturday’s 41-10 win over the Western Michigan Broncos was a near perfect encapsulation of the Iowa football fan experience. Lots to like. Lots to not like. A rollercoaster ride of emotions and at the end of the day, perhaps as many questions as answers.

If you missed it, consider yourself lucky. The final score is likely enough to keep a casual observer from taking a second glance, but it hides the reality that was a lot of anxiety for Iowa fans and leaves loads of frustration on the table. That frustration is perhaps compounded by the final score, as the 41 points marks a high water mark over the last two seasons and pulls the season average above the Ferentz line of 25 points per game. Which is to say, despite not feeling like a particularly satisfying blowout victory, Saturday’s win gave Brian Ferentz some wiggle room.

The optimistic Hawkeye fan might simply say Saturday was a step in the right direction. The Hawkeyes did, after all, finally get the running game going in earnest. While starting RB Kaleb Johnson was out due to an ankle injury, Iowa racked up 254 yards on the ground for a very tasty 5.9 yards per rush. Eight different Hawkeyes logged a positive rush on the day, including QB Cade McNamara, who was able to show more mobility than we’ve seen since he first put on the black and gold.

In the absence of Johnson, Jaziun Patterson tallied 20 yards on 6 carries before getting dinged up himself (in the words of Kirk Ferentz). But it was Leshon Williams who really stole the show. At risk of losing snaps to Patterson, Williams ran for 145 yards on 12 carries for an absurd 12.1 yards per catch. He showed burst and downhill running that simply was lacking in week one and only seemed possible with Patterson in the backfield in Ames.

Beyond Williams, Iowa found some much-needed depth in the backfield on Saturday as freshman Kamari Moulton burst onto the scene with 8 carries for 50 yards (6.3 ypc) and a pair of TDs, making him Iowa’s leader in rushing touchdowns through three weeks.

It wasn’t just Moulton, though. Fellow freshman Terrell Washington, Jr. added 6 carries for 31 yards (5.2 ypc) while Max White became the fourth Hawkeye to score on the ground this season when he put the proverbial exclamation point (period?) on Iowa’s win.

The Hawkeyes found depth in the backfield, but they also seemed to find something that works in their scheme. Traditionally a zone blocking offense, Iowa has been gradually mixing in more gap concepts for more than a year. On Saturday, we saw meaningful usage of not just gap concepts, but the counter and trap game helped keep Western Michigan on their heels and played a meaningful role in the jump the Hawkeyes had in yards per rush. Lanes were opening up, largely between the tackles.

The 254 yards on the ground more than doubled Iowa’s season output. The season yard per carry average jumped from 3.1 to 4.2 with Saturday’s performance. Reasons for optimism.

And it wasn’t just the running game that saw something for the optimists among us to grab onto. In the passing game, Cade McNamara threw for a pair of touchdowns, giving him four through the first three games of the year. That’s one fewer than Spencer Petras totaled in 11+ games a season ago.

McNamara opened the scoring with a TD pass to Diante Vines (the first of his career). The touchdown reception was the second this season from wide receiver - the same number Iowa completed all of last season.

His other touchdown pass came to running back Leshon Williams, who became the fourth different Hawkeye to catch a TD pass from McNamara in 2023. That, too, ties Iowa’s season total in 13 games a year ago. Again, reasons for optimism.

But that may be it as far as silver linings go.

Despite spreading the ball around in the passing game and getting the running game going, it took an uncomfortable amount of time to break that seal. After an impressive interception on a McNamara throw into a tight window on Iowa’s opening drive, the Hawkeyes looked shell-shocked for the entire first quarter.

Iowa wasted great field position on each of their first two possession with the aforementioned pick and a punt on the subsequent possession. On their third possession, the Hawkeyes pushed to just outside the redzone before stalling out once again and capping things off with a rare Drew Stevens FG miss.

Hawkeye fans and players alike had a 40+ minute weather delay to stew in the the stink that was Iowa’s first three possessions. Iowa was staring at a 7-0 deficit at home to a MAC team they were expected to defeat by four TDs through the first quarter. If you are anything other than the most optimistic of Hawkeye fans, you were some combination of nervous, frustrated and confused at this point.

Those feelings persisted through most of the afternoon as the playcalling was once again inconsistent much of the day and McNamara had his worst performance as a Hawkeye to-date. He finished the day 9 for 19 passing with only 103 yards and a pair of interceptions to go with the two touchdowns already noted. He repeatedly seemed to be pressing, trying to force throws down the field that simply weren’t there and for the first time this writer can recall, he had a Spencer Petras-esque misfire that ended up deep into the opponents bench.

For all the success on the ground, Brian too was pressing and trying to force additional throws. Multiple drives saw the Hawkeyes gash the Broncos for six or seven yards a pop only to get cute on 2nd and short, then run into the teeth of a stacked box on third and short.

And for as good as the offensive line looked in the run game most of the afternoon, Iowa gave up four sacks on the day with Cade McNamara scrambling for his life an uncomfortable amount of times given the level of competition.

For the truly pessimistic, those issues pale in comparison to the proverbial elephant in the room, which was the likely loss of start tight end Luke Lachey for the season. Lachey went out for a pass in the first quarter and ended up along the WMU sideline with his body pointing one direction and his foot another. While Kirk only called the injury “fairly significant,” it’s safe to assume Lachey’s recovery will be measured in months rather than weeks.

Add Lachey to a growing list of injured Hawkeyes. With starter Kaleb Johnson already out for the game, the Hawkeyes were able to establish so much depth in the backfield on Saturday because backup Jaziun Patterson was also reportedly dinged up. With a trip to Happy Valley looming, those are the types of things that Iowa simply cannot afford at this juncture.

And this is to say nothing of the defense. While Phil Parker’s bunch allowed a ridiculous 35 yards and just one first down in the second half after knocking out Western Michigan’s starting QB, they got off to a SLUGGISH start. They gave up 204 yards and 7 first downs, as well as all 10 points, in the first half.

Starting corner Jermari Harris was back, but clearly built up some rust over the last several months as he was beaten badly not once, but twice on the day. Thankfully one TD was called back for an ineligible receiver downfield.

Beyond the struggles from Harris, Parker will have plenty to chew on this week after watching Western Michigan’s Tanner Salopek break contain on multiple first quarter scrambles to pick up first downs. He left the game with 23 yards on 3 carries.

And so, as we’ve grown accustomed as Hawkeye fans, the 41-10 blowout victory to close out the non-conference schedule comes without much satisfaction. Instead, we’re left frustrated by missed opportunities, saddened by injuries and unsure of the future.

The scoring gives the Hawkeyes 85 total points on the season (thanks in part to 9 from the defense and special teams after the Hawkeyes grabbed a safety on an Anterio Thompson blocked punt), leaving 240 on Brain’s drive for 325. From a contractual perspective, this game did exactly what it was designed to do. The Hawkeyes covered a massive spread, they hit the over and Iowa is now averaging 28.3 points per game on the season. They need just 24 points per game the rest of the way for BF to have his contract renewed.

Again, for every positive an optimist can find in Saturday’s win, a pessimist can find a negative.