Mark Richt, a coach whose team was about as impressive as can be in its opener, told reporters this week that teams see the most improvement between the first and second games. Let's hope he's right: Iowa needs some serious improvement if Saturday's outcome is going to be what we want.
The problems with Iowa's performance against UNI were obvious, to be sure. Iowa struggled in the defensive back seven against the pass, giving up 380 yards through the air, and refused to challenge UNI deep on offense. The running game managed just 4.2 yards per carry against the Panthers, but the average doesn't tell the full story; Iowa's four feature backs managed just 2.8 yards per rush.
Fortunately, if there is one place where Iowa is guaranteed to improve, it's in the secondary. Phil Parker has done more with less over the last 15 years than any other Iowa position coach, and linebacker coaches Jim Reid and LeVar Woods worked their magic on an experienced group of linebackers over the last two seasons. Iowa's back seven had a combined 28 starts before last week, with 25 of those from Desmond King and John Lowdermilk. In other words, five members of the back seven will effectively double their game experience this week. Last Saturday's problems -- Quinton Alston not being physical enough with backfield receivers, miscommunication between the free safety and linebackers, misreads by the safeties in coverage -- are easy fixes for one of the best defensive coaches in the nation. There is no doubt they got to work this week, and improvement has to be expected.
As for the offense, we have to remember that Kirk Ferentz has no problem using the short passing game. He came to Iowa as a West Coast offense guy, and his offense at its finest was based on short timing passes. This offense isn't that -- the Hawkeyes' reliance on short throws was less by design than by read last week -- but while the fan base pulls out its hair over Jake Rudock's conservatism, it likely wasn't a serious source of concern to the coaching staff. Rudock completed 76 percent of his pass attempts against UNI, by far his career high, and totaled his most passing yardage since last year's opening week. If teams are hell-bent on denying Iowa the long ball and forcing long scoring drives, Iowa is happy to rely on its experienced offense to oblige.
The running game is another issue, though; Iowa's offense simply cannot work on less than three yards per carry from its halfbacks. Part of the problem was scheme. Northern Iowa ran cover 3 against Iowa for most of Saturday, which drops two cornerbacks and a safety deep. This does two things: It makes it difficult to find deep receivers because of the safety holding the center of the field. Cover 3 gets shredded by spread and air raid offenses that can overwhelm the deep safety with wideouts, but has always been popular against Iowa's style of offense, because it forces the offense to run off the deep coverage and exploit linebackers in the short- and middle-range passing game.
But cover 3 also lets the defense move the strong safety -- who has coverage responsibilities in the flat -- into the box as an eighth run defender. That puts too many players up front for a standard offensive formation to block. And Iowa's obvious run tendencies make defending it easy when there are that many defenders up front. UNI simply crashed its linebackers and strong safety to the tackle on the side where Mark Weisman or Leshun Daniels took their first step and left cutback duties to the off-side linebackers, as if the cutback was ever really in play. Iowa's run game remains too slow in development and execution unless the offensive line is dominant. The line wasn't dominant, and Iowa did nothing to punish UNI for its overpursuit, hence the 2.8 yards per carry.
The first problem can be fixed with coaching and experience. The second problem likely isn't a problem at all. But the third one, that all-important running game, hasn't really been fixed in years. It is the same set of problems Iowa had against good defenses last year, only with scheme making up for high-end defensive talent. And there's no guarantee that it gets fixed beyond better execution on the offensive line.
Iowa might simply be dominant across the offensive front Saturday. Ball State only gave up 90 rushing yards against Colgate last week, but the Cardinals are inexperienced across the defensive front and Colgate is Colgate. If so, Iowa could pound Ball State into submission regardless of defensive alignment or offensive predictability.
But Pete Lembo is no slouch, and will certainly have learned something from the UNI tape. Ball State will pressure Iowa's middle linebacker and safeties with seam and post routes, and it's Iowa's responsibility to fix those errors. Ball State will try to take away the deep ball, and it will be Jake Rudock's responsibility to keep the passing game moving. And Ball State will look for the obvious signs in Iowa's running game. That's not a problem that can be solved by simple improvement. That's a schematic issue as much as an issue of execution, and we need to see the same Week 2 improvement from the coaches that we hope to see from the players if Iowa is to succeed.
Kirk Ferentz treats the non-conference slate largely as a preseason. The preseason is for identifying and fixing problems. Those fixes begin Saturday, and if they don't, we have far bigger concerns going forward.