IOWA CITY, Iowa – Nothing is more tangible in a team’s development than a loss.
Coaches can scream on the practice field and shout about negatives in the video room until the weekly 20-hour rule expires, but it doesn’t resonate until players experience defeat. Well, Iowa’s players felt that pain Saturday.
The Hawkeyes (2-1) plummeted from No. 13 to completely out of the Associated Press Poll after a 23-21 loss to FCS power North Dakota State. They’re hanging on to No. 25 in the USA Today Coaches’ Poll after a 14-spot drop. It’s odd to see a team fall so far after a last-second loss, but that’s what happens when you lose to an FCS squad.
If Iowa wants to climb back up the rankings — which is possible — there are several key areas of concern. Some are small, others large. Some require tweaks, others changes. Either way, after seeing their 14-game regular-season winning streak snapped, the Hawkeyes need to make these modifications going forward.
Shake it up on first down
Iowa’s early-down attack was diverse in the first half Saturday. Of the 12 first-down plays, eight were passes with five completions for 95 yards. Half of Iowa’s first-down plays came out of its three-wide receiver grouping. Two others were in 12 personnel (two tight ends, two wide receivers).
More than 41 percent of Iowa’s offensive output on Saturday came on first down in the first half when the fullback was off the field. The second half was the complete opposite.
The Hawkeyes had only eight first-down plays in the second half, which speaks both to their inability to sustain drives and to get their defense off the field. Only two were passes, and the Hawkeyes completed both. Iowa’s six second-half running plays on first down totaled 6 yards. None of those running attempts came from the three-receiver set.
Iowa’s biggest play in the second half came when true freshman quarterback Nathan Stanley briefly replaced injured starter C.J. Beathard. On his first snap, Stanley faked to running back LeShun Daniels and then hit tight end George Kittle on a 37-yard play-action pass.
Overall, Iowa was 7-of-10 for 139 yards passing on first down. The Hawkeyes finished with 231 total yards.
Way too predictable on third down
Of Iowa’s 13 third-down plays, 10 came from the 11 grouping (three receivers). All 10 were dropbacks. In the first half, Iowa was 0-for-5 passing with an interception returned for a touchdown with three receivers on the field. In the second half, two ended in sacks, one was a bad snap, and another was a scramble that injured Beathard. Iowa produced just one positive play, when Beathard moved out of the pocket and tossed a 9-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Matt VandeBerg.
Iowa’s other three third-down plays were from the 22 grouping (two tight ends, two running backs). Iowa ran all three times. Each play was third-and-2 or closer and Iowa converted on all three attempts.
The predictability factor here is mind-numbing. When Iowa was 2 yards or closer, it ran (three attempts, 11 yards, three first downs). When Iowa was 3 yards or farther from a first down, it passed. The numbers were 1-of-6 passing for 9 yards, three sacks (counting the bad snap) and one quarterback scramble (two total first downs).
What’s right isn’t wrong
In the last six quarters, Iowa officially has run the ball 40 times (counting sacks). Only twice have the Hawkeyes clearly run to the right side. TWICE.
It wasn’t a big deal in the second half against Iowa State. The Hawkeyes buried the Cyclones 42-3 and ran either up the middle or to the left the entire second half.
But against North Dakota State, it became a major issue. Of Iowa’s 25 runs, 23 were up the middle or to the left. The only right-side runs were in the second quarter, and both were by Akrum Wadley. The first was an 18-yard gain. The second right-side run lost a yard. That’s it.
Iowa officially ran 14 times for minus-7 yards in the second half. If you take away the bad snap and two sacks, it’s still 11 times for 19 yards. That’s unacceptable. It’s also inexplicable that none of those rushing attempts went to Iowa’s right side.
Too basic on defense
Everybody knows what Iowa plans to do on defense. It’s a base 4-3 that incorporates few blitzes and plays basic zone coverage. Sometimes the last three seasons Iowa would mix up personnel with a Raider package, which had six defensive backs and rushed three or four players from different positions.
But Iowa chose not to mix it up at all on Saturday. Losing nickel or dime coverages wasn’t an issue because North Dakota State wasn’t going to hurt Iowa from the air. But there were few linebacker blitzes or alterations up front. The Bison pounded straight at the Hawkeyes, who could have used a linebacker forcing the action. That was especially true during an 80-yard, 15-play drive that took up 8 minutes, 39 seconds. North Dakota State ran 12 of its 15 plays and chewed up 66 yards on the ground.
Iowa’s line was beat up, weakside linebacker Bo Bower was too tentative, safeties Miles Taylor and Brandon Snyder whiffed on several tackles and the defense as a whole was too reactive. When the Bison took the ball at their 34 with 1:53 left, it was obvious they were going to move the ball. And Iowa did nothing to prevent it, either in scheme or personnel.
The left side of Iowa’s offensive line had a dreadful day. Not only did Iowa rush for 34 yards as a whole, the Hawkeyes ran for 17 yards on 23 carries on plays up the middle or to the left. If you remove the two sacks and bad snap, it’s still 22 carries for 60.
Even worse, Bison defenders repeatedly crushed Beathard. North Dakota State linebacker Pierre Gee-Tucker hit Beathard just as he released the ball. Linebacker MJ Stumpf returned the pass 21 yards for a touchdown on an interception return. Left tackle Cole Croston didn’t fan out wide enough to prevent Gee-Tucker from an unobstructed blast to Beathard’s back.
On the second half’s first series, Bison right defensive end Greg Menard looped around Iowa’s left side and through the A gap, where running back LeShun Daniels missed the pickup. Beathard didn’t stand a chance.
Late in the game, Bison safety Robbie Grimsley blitzed up the middle and left guard Boone Myers was too late to make the block. Grimsley sacked Beathard for a 9-yard loss, which forced the Hawkeyes to punt the ball back to North Dakota State.
If Iowa can’t solve its left side issues, its offensive predictability will be matched only by its ineffectiveness. The Hawkeyes might just get their gem of a quarterback killed in the process.