By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Even with the outcome of Saturday’s game between Iowa and Northwestern still very much in doubt, I decided late in the third quarter that my post-game column would focus on Iowa’s rushing attack, or more specifically, the lack of it.
The Hawkeyes certainly had their chances to pull out a victory in front of about 1,200 spectators, but the offense failed too many times to deliver, especially in the second half where Iowa has only scored three points in each of the first two games.
The end result was a frustrating and costly 21-20 loss and Iowa is now 0-2 for the first time since 2000, which was Kirk Ferenz’s second season as head coach.
Sophomore quarterback Spencer Petras showed that he still is very much a work in progress by throwing three interceptions, including two in the fourth quarter. But that’s understandable with this only being his second career start, and without a running game to support him.
What doesn’t make sense, though, was Iowa’s inability to sustain any semblance of a rushing attack despite having a running back as talented as sophomore Tyler Goodson and a backup running back as experienced as Mekhi Sargent.
Northwestern basically handed Iowa two early touchdowns in the first quarter by losing two fumbles in its own territory, but that still wasn’t enough to help propel Iowa to victory.
Iowa led 17-0 after the first quarter, so the circumstance were ideal for the running game to control the tempo in order to protect the lead.
But for that to have happened, Iowa needed to control the line of scrimmage, but failed miserably, gaining just 77 yards on 23 attempts.
Petras would go on to throw 51 passes as Iowa almost seemed to give up on its running game in the third quarter.
Northwestern, on the other hand, only averaged 2.4 yards per carry as a team, but the Wildcats still stuck with their running attack, carrying 60 times, and that helped to control the tempo.
“I think if you, historically, if you look at those kinds of numbers the outcome wasn’t good,” Kirk Ferentz said. “We didn’t run the ball effectively enough today. We certainly had a couple of good runs, but with consistency, not enough.
“So that’s something we’re going to have to get addressed because we don’t want to play that way. We’re looking for a lot more balance than that.”
Northwestern loaded the box on numerous plays and seemed determined to make Iowa one dimensional on offense.
“That’s Northwestern for you,” Petras said. “When they’re playing cover four, their safeties are coming down hard and trying to stop the run. They have a lot of good run-stopping pressures that they bring. That’s kind of their MO, they want to force you take what’s there and play sound football for sixty minutes.
“And they played well.”
Okay, fair enough.
But on the other hand, teams also load the box against Wisconsin, and yet, somehow the Badgers still thrive as a running team. There are numerous times when opponents know that Wisconsin plans to run, and yet, defenses still can’t stop the Badgers from plowing forward.
So from Iowa’s perspective, the excuse about opponents loading the box, or using it as an explanation for why the running game so often sputters, gets old.
Iowa had two fifth-year seniors with more than 80 career starts between them starting at the two tackles positions on Saturday, but the offense still averaged just 3.3 yards per carry as a team.
Alaric Jackson played okay at left tackle, but Indiana graduate transfer Coy Cronk struggled at right tackle to where he was benched in second half.
“He just didn’t look quite comfortable enough, so we’ll go back to work on Monday,” Kirk Ferentz said of Cronk. “He’s missed a lot of time, as I’ve said in the past, and he’s still working through some things.
“But Coy is a tremendous guy. He’s going to be a good player for us. But I thought he was struggling a little bit.”
Northwestern improved to 2-0 on the season, and it could be that the Wildcats have a solid run defense in the making. It’s just too early to tell at this point.
But why can’t Iowa have a solid running game for a change?
Why can’t Iowa, for a change, live up to its reputation as an offense that relies heavily on its ground attack to move the chains and control tempo?
If Iowa can’t sustain a rushing attack with two experienced tackles, and with a rising star at center in sophomore Tyler Linderbaum, and with another fifth-year senior at guard in Cole Banwart, then when can it?
Petras obviously has to play better than he did on Saturday.
But you could probably say that about everyone on the team with exception to junior defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon and freshman punter Tory Taylor.
Nixon finished with 11 tackles, including three for losses, and had 1.5 sacks, while Taylor punted four times for a 49.0 average.
Iowa’s inability to sustain any semblance of a running game continues to be the most maddening and peculiar thing about the offense.
It would be easy to point fingers at Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz because it’s happening under his watch.
But Iowa’s rushing woes date back long before Brian Ferentz took over the offense.
There was reason to be optimistic about the running game after it produced 195 yards against Purdue last Saturday. Iowa lost the game 24-20, but that was largely due to turnovers and penalties.
The running game did its part, unlike against Northwestern where the running game fizzled.
Iowa also had some success on the ground against the University of Southern California in the Holiday Bowl last December, but part of that was from using receivers on reverses.
Northwestern apparently was ready for those plays because Brian Ferentz didn’t use on Saturday.
Iowa has to fix its running game ASAP because this COVID-shortened season will be over before you know it, and maybe even sooner than expected.
Up next is a home game against Michigan State this coming Saturday, and the Spartans, under first-year head coach Mel Tucker, looked like a completely different team while defeating Michigan 27-24 on Saturday compared to the previous week when they lost at home to Rutgers.
The offensive line is considered Kirk Ferentz’s area of expertise. He coached the Iowa offensive line for nine seasons under Hayden Fry from 1981-89, and for six seasons in the NFL.
Some have suggested that Iowa’s zone blocking schemes are outdated and too predictable, and that changes should be made.
I’ve never paid much attention to that argument, but now I’m starting to wonder.
Whatever the case, it seems painfully clear at this point that Iowa offensive line coach Tim Polasek could use some of Kirk Ferentz’s expertise before it’s too late.