By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Alaric Jackson had to know what he would face with the media on Tuesday, and good for him for showing up and dealing with it.
As an Iowa offensive lineman, Jackson is part of what is now the most scrutinized and criticized position on the team because of what happened in back-to-back losses to Michigan on Oct. 5th in Ann Arbor, Mich., and against Penn State this past Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.
Iowa rushed for one yard during the 10-3 loss at Michigan, which includes the lost yardage from eight sacks, and 70 yards during the 17-12 loss to Penn State.
Senior quarterback Nate Stanley was sacked a total of 10 times in the two games, and pressured in the pocket countless other times.
It just hasn’t been a good stretch for the Iowa offensive line, and nobody has paid the price more than Stanley from a physical standpoint.
Jackson was reminded of that on Tuesday.
“I love Nate a lot and I really feel bad because it’s on us as the o-line to keep him clean, and as we go, keep it clean,” said Jackson, who is in his third season as Iowa’s starting left tackle. “And we didn’t do that for him, and that’s on us.
“So this week it’ll be pretty good for him, keep it clean.”
The 15 points that Iowa combined to score against Michigan and Penn State is Iowa’s lowest two-game total since back-to-back losses to Illinois and Ohio State in 2000 by scores of 31-0 and 38-10, respectively.
That was Kirk Ferentz’s second season as head coach and the program still was in a major rebuilding phase.
Ferentz is now in his 21st season as head coach, which is the longest coaching era in program history, and the longest for any current FBS head coach.
So the circumstances are much different now compared to 2000, and so are the expectations and the reaction from fans when Iowa doesn’t meet expectations.
Injuries have certainly had an impact on the offensive line, but not to the point where it should become a weakness, as was the case against Michigan and Penn State.
Jackson, and starting right tackle Tristan Wirfs, are both considered potential high NFL Draft picks as juniors, and yet, their presence still hasn’t been enough to stop the struggles up front.
It takes all five offensive linemen doing their job for the offense to work, but that’s where Iowa has come up short, partly due to injuries, but also due to inadequate performances.
Jackson missed three games with a knee injury that he suffered in the first quarter of the season opener against Miami of Ohio, while junior guard Cole Banwart is now out for the season with a knee injury and sophomore guard Kyler Schott is also out indefinitely with an injury.
Iowa’s next-man-in philosophy is being tested at the two guard positions, and right now, the Hawkeyes aren’t testing well.
Jackson does see a light at the end of the tunnel, though.
“I’ve been out for a few weeks, so chemistry isn’t as tight, but it’s getting back to that way,” Jackson said. “I’ve been back the past two weeks. We’re communicating better and just doing the little small things right.
“So it’ll be good this weekend.”
Jackson must have been referring to the past two days of practice because the offensive line struggled with communication and with attention to detail against Penn State and Michigan.
Those teams both have rock-solid defenses, but Iowa was thought to have a rock-solid offensive line with Jackson and Wirfs leading the way.
But it was advantage Penn State and Michigan in a big way, and now Hawkeye fans want to know why.
They want to why a program that is known for producing NFL offensive linemen, and that has a head coach whose area of expertise is the offensive line, is performing so poorly as a group at those positions.
“It's frustrating any time we don't do well enough to win, wherever it may come,” Kirk Ferentz said at his weekly press conference on Tuesday. “That's one thing about football, it tends to rotate. Usually games aren't the same. Whatever it is we're doing that's not performing well enough to get us in a winning margin, we just got to try to focus on that, improve it. All can you do is try to work out in practice, then be smart in meetings.
“Hopefully, guys take what they see in meetings into practice, work on correcting things, like any sport. That's a challenge. Really doesn't matter what position it is. If we're not quite getting it done, it's always frustrating. We want to do well. But the good news is, we've seen our guys play better. We'll keep focused on that, see if we can't get back up a little bit better.”
Talk all you want about blocking schemes and who should be starting or whether the situation has gotten worse since Tim Polasek was hired to coach the offensive line in 2017, but the biggest reason Iowa’s offensive line struggled in the last two games was the level of competition.
That’s not excusing or dismissing what happened against Penn State and Michigan, because to be the best, you have to beat the best, and Iowa failed to meet that challenge in back-to-back games, mostly because the offensive line struggled.
But this isn't rocket science.
Iowa’s zone blocking schemes work just fine when Iowa can dominate its opponent, as was the case against Middle Tennessee State, which allowed 351 rushing yards during a 48-3 beat-down on Sept. 28th at Kinnick Stadium.
It’s when the opponent is as good, or better than Iowa, that the blocking suffers.
You can say that about any team, but with Iowa its gets magnified because of the perception that Iowa has one of the Big Ten’s best rushing attacks.
Iowa football under Kirk Ferentz is ground and pound, and few supposedly do it better, at least that is the perception.
Look closer, though, and you’ll see that perception isn’t always reality.
Iowa struggled to establish the run against quality defenses long before Polasek was hired.
And now combine the lack of a running game with failing to protect the quarterback and you have a recipe for disaster.
"If we're not protecting the quarterback, it's going to be tough to operate the way we want to operate,” Ferentz said. "So that's certainly paramount. Just like running the football better, that's paramount on the list, too."
Ferentz was asked on Tuesday about some of the younger offensive linemen, including true freshman Justin Britt, and whether they might be able to help at the two guard positions.
The 6-foot-5, 290-pound Britt has played sparingly so far, but that could change as Ferentz looks to upgrade the offensive line.
"If we can get him in the game, we'll get him in the game,” Ferentz said. “I will say he's improving every week and had a good day today. He's pushing that direction. We have an open mind, have had an open mind over a month now with him and everybody.”
Britt could prove to be an upgrade, but he's also a true freshman who suffered a serious knee injury barely a year ago. So it could take some time for him to adjust to a bigger role.
But the only cavalry that's coming are the offensive linemen on the current roster.
It hardly would be a surprise if the running game, and pass protection, both improve against Purdue on Saturday compared to the previous two games, but not because it’s homecoming.
Nothing against Purdue, but its defense has been hurt by injuries, and isn’t as good as the defenses for Penn State and Michigan.
Purdue is ranked 13th in the Big Ten in total defense and passing defense, allowing a whopping 444.5 and 278.0 yards, respectively, in those two categories. Purdue is also ranked 12th in the conference in scoring defense (29.8) and 11th in rushing defense (166.5).
Should the Iowa offensive line continue to struggle against Purdue, then there are serious problems that go beyond just the level of competition and correcting the little things.