By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – The easy thing right now would be to over-react and start calling for a scorch-the-earth campaign.
Fire this coach, and fire that coach.
Bench this player, and bench that player.
Change the offense, and change the blocking schemes because what happened to the Iowa football team in these past two games is just unacceptable.
That isn’t me saying that, but that's a lot of what I’m hearing in response to the current circumstances.
Iowa had chances in the last two games for a signature conference win against a storied program, only to come up short in both cases due mostly to inadequacies on offense.
The same Iowa team that less than two weeks ago was 4-0, ranked 14th nationally and averaging 217.0 rushing yards per game is now 4-2 and averaging 156.8 rushing yards per game.
The same Iowa team that was considered a serious threat to win the Big Ten West Division has combined to score just one touchdown over the last eight quarters against Penn State and Michigan.
The same Iowa team that only had one turnover in the first four games has combined for six in the last two games.
The same Iowa team that was thought to have an explosive and balanced offense now has a sputtering offense that can’t finish drives or establish an effective running game against quality defenses.
Of course, the level of competition has everything to do with it, but this Iowa team soared to 4-0 in impressive and entertaining fashion, and it was easy to let your mind wander and think that maybe something special was brewing.
But there is a thin line between being special and 8-4, and the worry now is that Iowa already has crossed that line by losing to Michigan and Penn State by scores of 10-3 and 17-12, respectively.
They’re both quality losses, if there is such a thing, but quality losses only carry so much weight.
The Iowa defense is playing winning football, having allowed 17 or fewer points in every game this season.
Special teams have been solid, although, Keith Duncan has missed a field goal in each of the past two games after having made his first nine attempts on the season, while punter Michael Sleep-Dalton has averaged fewer than 40 yards per attempt in each of the past two games.
The current skid can mostly be traced to the inability to establish a rushing attack and failing to protect the quarterback, although, Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley said after Saturday’s loss to Penn State that the rushing statistics are sort of misleading.
“I think we have put ourselves in position to not run the ball as much,” Stanley said. “The last two games have been heavy pass. We put ourselves in those positions. Those stats can be a little skewed because of the amount of times we run the ball versus pass the ball.”
There probably is some truth in what Stanley said, but it’s not as if Iowa fell behind by a large margin in either of the past two games to where passing was required in order to catch up.
Both games were low-scoring, nail-biters in which both teams grappled with the momentum.
There was no reason not to run unless you didn’t trust what would happen.
Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz was accused of abandoning the running game too soon at Michigan, which is easy to criticize with hindsight.
But maybe Brian Ferentz relied more on passing because he didn’t trust the running game, and because Nate Stanley is a much better passer than runner.
There are numerous times when I watch Stanley as the pocket begins to collapse and say to myself, “get out there, run,” but more times than he not he either throws an incomplete pass or gets sacked.
For years, I’ve said and written that Iowa needs to make recruiting dual-threat quarterbacks more of an emphasis and a priority. The game has changed so much with more emphasis on speed to where having a quarterback who can scramble is almost a requirement.
This could be a case of me over-reacting to the back-to-back losses, but my push for a dual-threat quarterback has been ongoing. The losses to Penn State and Michigan have just reinforced that narrative.
Sophomore Peyton Mansell is considered Iowa's most mobile quarterback, but he is currently third on the depth chart behind Stanley and redshirt freshman backup Spencer Petras, who at 6-5 and 230 pounds is similar in build and playing style to Stanley.
Iowa supposedly has two of the best offensive tackles in the Big Ten in juniors Tristan Wirfs and Alaric Jackson, but it’s hard to tell right now with the running game failing to produce, and with Stanley having been sacked 10 times in the last two games.
Stanley makes it harder for the offensive line to protect him because he lacks mobility, and only runs as a last resort. He seems most comfortable throwing from a stationary position in the pocket, and using play action, which is typical for a pro-style quarterback.
Penn State also struggled on offense for much of Saturday’s game, but it finally started having success on the ground late in the second quarter. That success would carry over to the second half as Penn State would go on to finish with 177 rushing yards, while Iowa was held to 70.
Penn State had 53 rushing attempts, while Iowa was held to just 30, averaging 2.3 yards per carry.
Penn State only averaged 3.3 yards per carry as a team, but that average is sort of misleading because it includes a minus-33 yards that had nothing to do with the running game, and it doesn’t show that freshman Noah Cain averaged 4.6 yards on 22 attempts.
Cain’s 102 rushing yards were impactful in ways beyond just statistics.
His ability to run downhill seems to have inspired the Penn State offensive linemen to do the same because they had a better surge off the line of the scrimmage once Cain started finding gaps in Iowa’s defense.
Speaking of finding gaps in the Iowa defense, Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford grew up a lot on Saturday under the stars at Kinnick Stadium.
His ability to run and throw gave Penn State a dimension that Iowa doesn’t have with the 6-foot-4, 243-pound Stanley.
Clifford finished with 52 net rushing yards, which includes a minus-15 yards on three sacks. Take away the sacks and he gained 67 yards on the ground, and each yard was huge because having a dual-threat quarterback is almost like having a 12th man on offense.
Iowa’s inability to establish the run against quality opponents has been an ongoing problem, and it’s really kind of strange because so much of what Iowa does under Kirk Ferentz, from recruiting to training to play calling, is built around running the football.
Kirk Ferentz’s area of expertise is also the offensive line, and yet, the Iowa running game has a history of not delivering under Ferentz, especially against quality opponents, as has been the case in the last two games.
“We’re going to have to play a little cleaner, execute better,” Kirk Ferentz said after Saturday’s loss, which lowered Iowa’s record to 4-2 overall and 1-2 in the Big Ten. “Part of that’s us, part of it’s the opponents we played the last two weeks.
“Probably a combination of the two.”
While those on the outside over-react to losing back-to-back games, those who actually did lose the games, meaning the Iowa players and coaches, will forge ahead.
Up next is a Purdue team that is battered and bruised, but still dangerous as it showed this past Saturday by crushing Maryland 40-14 at home.
Purdue also has won the last two games in the series, so the Iowa coaches shouldn’t have trouble finding ways to motivate the players.
“I haven’t seen anything about this team that would lead me to think they’re not going to show up and play or show up and practice on Monday,” Kirk Ferentz said after the loss to Penn State. “We don’t want to assume anything, either.
“This is tough. This is a tough loss, two in a row. Getting up on your feet, it’s easy to talk about, but it’s tough to do.”
That was Ferentz’s answer when asked what he wanted to see from the leaders on his team.
He was also asked after Saturday's loss to Penn State if he feels the frustration with his offense, and what his message would be after having combined to score 15 points in the last two games.
“The answer is to score more points,” Ferentz said.
Those are the kinds of questions that get asked when your team shows some early signs that it might be special on both sides of the ball, but then it only scores one touchdown in back-to-back losses to a Michigan and Penn State by a combined 12 points.
Those who bought into the hype now probably feel sort of betrayed, or let down.
But it goes back to the running game because that is where Iowa’s path to losing almost always starts.
There have been the occasional shootouts, but usually when Iowa loses is a situation where the running game sputters and the defense eventually wears down from spending too much time on the field.
Some fans on social media have decided to blame third-year offensive line coach Tim Polasek for the current problems with the running game, but the problems started long before he joined the staff.
Polasek wasn’t to blame when Iowa rushed for only 34 yards on 25 carries during a 23-21 loss to North Dakota State in 2016 because he was actually a member of the North Dakota State coaching staff at the time.
Iowa’s rushing woes were happening long before Polasek climbed aboard, and they’re still happening.
The current team has shown a knack for converting on third down, having done so at nearly 50 percent in the first six games, but the inability to establish a rushing attack has kept it from getting over the hump against two quality opponents.
No one thing loses a football game, but a sputtering rushing attack seems to be at the root of most of Iowa’s losses.
The inability to run, coupled with Stanley’s lack of mobility, creates a tough circumstance for Brian Ferentz because there is only so much he can do from a play calling standpoint.
Some of Penn State’s most crucial gains on Saturday came on plays when it appeared that Clifford was forced to improvise after the initial play call had broken down, and he did so with his legs.
Iowa doesn’t have that option, or a good enough running game to offset not having that option.
And that more than anything else is why Iowa is 4-2 instead of 5-1 or 6-0 midway through the regular season.
The season is far from over, but with each loss Iowa becomes more irrelevant on the big stage.
A loss to Purdue would make another trip to Tampa for the holidays seem almost too good to be true.