By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – The Iowa football team is 2-0 and coming off its fourth consecutive victory over Iowa State.
The defensive line is also showing signs of being dominant, so there is obviously a buzz surrounding the team and it’s well-deserved.
But don’t let that buzz fool you because all is not well heading into Saturday’s game against Northern Iowa at Kinnick Stadium.
The Iowa offense is almost always a work in progress under head coach Kirk Ferentz, sometimes a slow and frustrating work in progress. But it wasn’t expected to be a weakness, not with an experienced, strong-armed quarterback who threw 26 touchdown passes and just six interceptions last season, and not with two tight ends who combined for 54 catches, 814 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns last season leading the way.
But so far, the offense in six of eight quarters over two games has been a weakness, the exception being the second half against Northern Illinois when Iowa scored all but three of its points in a 33-7 victory.
“We’re sporadic. We’re hit or miss right now,” Ferentz said after the 13-3 victory over Iowa State this past Saturday in which the Iowa offense produced just 271 yards, including 105 rushing yards. “We don’t have a rhythm. We haven’t showed sustained.
"So we’ll keep pushing. That’s usually the hardest thing to do, hardest thing to establish.”
The offense has started slowly in each of the first two games, scoring just three points in the first half of both games.
Iowa is averaging 157.0 rushing yards per game, which isn’t horrible, but hardly anything to brag about, either. However, a more worrisome statistic is Iowa’s 3.7 yards-per-carry average as a team.
Senior center Keegan Render said last week that the goal on offense is to average at least 4.5 yards per carry as a team. Render said there is more emphasis put on yards-per-carry than on total rushing yards, so to be averaging almost one yard less than the desired goal is a problem because Iowa relies so much on its running game to establish tempo and rhythm.
But the rushing attack is not the biggest problem on offense right now, and probably not even the second biggest problem on offense.
The biggest problem right now is that Nate Stanley hasn’t had a standout performance since he shredded Ohio State for five touchdown passes during a stunning 55-24 victory in the ninth game of last season at Kinnick Stadium.
Stanley has had his moments since the Buckeye beat-down, but has been ordinary far more than extraordinary.
And that has to change because most offenses are only as good as their quarterback.
Much was expected from Stanley this season based on how he played last season when he threw 26 touchdown passes and just six interceptions. But so far, he been average at best.
He is only completing 52.3 percent of his passes and has thrown just one touchdown pass in two games this season.
“We just have to come in with the mindset knowing that things are going to be tough and we have to continue to battle and fight through it,” Stanley said.
There is no magic cure for what ails Iowa’s passing attack besides getting repetitions in practice and then executing in games.
Stanley just has to play better and the receivers just have to do something positive.
Receiver rarely has been a position of strength under Ferentz, but that doesn’t justify it being a weakness.
Sophomore Brandon Smith did something by catching a 30-yard pass that set up Iowa’s only touchdown against Iowa State. It was his first catch this season, and just his fourth catch as a Hawkeye, but the hope is that it’ll be a turning point for the Mississippi native.
“A big confidence booster for him, and it obviously sparked that touchdown drive for us,” Stanley said of Smith’s catch against Iowa State. “It was huge for him, but for the whole offense as well.”
Even star tight end Noah Fant has struggled as evidenced by his average of 5.9 yards per catch this season. Fant dropped a potential long touchdown pass on what was probably Stanley’s best throw this season early in the first half against Northern Illinois.
This is the same Noah Fant who caught 11 touchdown passes and averaged 16.5 yards per catch last season.
But while you know that Fant and fellow tight end T.J. Hockenson are capable of performing at a high level throughout an entire season, the jury is still out on Iowa’s receivers.
Nick Easley was thought to be an exception after he led Iowa with 51 catches and 530 receiving yard last season. But Easley has been mysteriously a no-show on offense with just one catch for 15 yards in two games.
It certainly isn’t time to panic or to question Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, although, some on Twitter felt it was time to do both during halftime of the first two games.
It took the offense until the second half before it started clicking against Northern Illinois, and then it took more than three quarters against Iowa State.
Former Iowa offensive coordinator Don Patterson made his weekly appearance on the All-Hawkeyes podcast on Monday and he said the circumstances have changed for Stanley compared to last season when he was a first-year starter.
“He’s wearing more hats this season,” Patterson said. “He isn’t just the quarterback anymore. He’s now one of the leaders on the team and that's a lot of responsibility.”
Patterson said it was way too early after just two games to fairly judge Stanley or the offense as a whole.
Patterson agreed that Stanley hasn’t played up to his potential, but Patterson said there are several reasons for that, including some key drops and the inability of the receivers to get open on a consistent basis.
The pass blocking also has been suspect at times, and is made worse by Stanley’s lack of mobility.
Stanley had a key scramble for a first down against Iowa State in which he escaped from the pocket and ran after the play had broken down.
He has to do more of that in order to keep opposing defenses guessing.
The fact that Iowa is struggling on offense probably shouldn’t be a surprise because there is a history of that under Ferentz, especially in September.
It also was premature to call Stanley a star heading into the season, although, that narrative was pushed by some in the media, along with speculation that Stanley might skip his senior season to declare for the 2019 NFL Draft.
The only thing Stanley should focus on right now from a football standpoint is getting better each day in preparation for the next game.
He and the offense still have at least 10 games to fix things, and there are enough proven pieces on offense to feel somewhat confident about that happening.
Stanley also has the luxury of having Ken O’Keefe as his quarterbacks coach, and the importance of that can’t be overstated.
“Ken O’Keefe is an outstanding coach,” Patterson said. “Nate is very fortunate to have him around on a daily basis.”
Stanley is also very fortunate to have a rock-solid defense for support.
The offense, of course, has to do its part. And so far, it has done just enough to help win two games.
But should the offense improve, Kirk Ferentz’s 20th season as the Iowa head coach could be special.
But for now, that’s a big could be.