IOWA CITY, Iowa — Where does Iowa go from here?
Following a re-watch of the No. 10 Wisconsin-Iowa game, that proved to be the most compelling thought from the game. The Badgers outplayed the Hawkeyes and deserved to win. That stood out as the game played out on Saturday. A second viewing only confirmed it.
Iowa is far from a perfect team. There is a lot that restricts what the Hawkeyes can do in the passing game, but the loss may have shown a potential move to reinvigorate it.
Wadley to the rescue?
The Badgers lined up in press coverage and didn’t always provide help over the top from safeties. Wisconsin dared Iowa’s receivers to make plays, but they couldn’t.
The Badgers won the matchup throughout the game because the Hawkeyes failed to get separation and give quarterback C.J. Beathard open options.
One thing worked repeatedly: Beathard connecting with running back Akrum Wadley, who led the Hawkeyes with seven receptions for 72 yards – most of which were dump-off passes with Wadley coming out of the backfield. Wisconsin consistently gave that space to Iowa. It’s why Wadley played a bigger role in the passing attack than in past games.
Go watch that play again. Wadley ran about six yards out of the backfield and stopped. He used wide receiver Jay Scheel as a screen to get the first down.
Wadley relied his playmaking ability in space to move the chains. He did it again when he made Wisconsin linebacker Jack Cichy miss on this reception.
The passing game is stuck. Wadley may be what the Hawkeyes need to jumpstart it.
He made plays on Saturday, which is something in short supply. He possesses the elusiveness to get open, which is also in short supply.
He could be a threat down the field, showing as much on his 26-yard touchdown reception where he flew by the Iowa State defense in September.
Iowa tried to get him the ball on a trick play against Wisconsin. Wadley ran a wheel route on a throwback pass with wideout Riley McCarron, but he thought Wadley was covered and didn’t throw him the football.
The Hawkeyes were on the right path there. They need to keep exploring what Wadley can do in the passing game. They are on a bye this week, which could be the time to experiment — Wadley could thrive in the slot — and add a few packages to put him in position to impact the passing game.
The Iowa passing attack is short-pass centric as it plays into the strength of wide receiver Riley McCarron. It’s all that’s really worked since wide receiver Matt VandeBerg went down. Wadley can complement McCarron here. He could potentially make plays in the intermediate and deep passing game when not running the football.
The Hawkeyes have two good running backs. They aren’t in a position where they can afford to keep one of their seemingly shrinking pool of playmakers on the sideline. The Hawkeyes should see what happens when both play at the same time. One could be a threat in the run game, the other potentially in the passing game.
Giving cornerback Desmond King a few reps at wide receiver to help revive the passing attack is a topic that won’t go away. The thought might be right, but the focus was on the wrong player.
Wadley could be just what the aerial attack needs to get going.
More passing options
The easiest path for passing game improvement comes from the receivers. A healthy George Kittle at tight end would go a long way to helping Beathard. It looks like it will happen for the Penn State game on Nov. 5.
But it doesn’t solve the biggest problem: Iowa doesn’t throw downfield. Only two of Iowa’s 33 passes went more than 15 yards against Wisconsin. Part of this is due to offensive coordinator Greg Davis and his passing philosophy, but part of it is due to what the Iowa receivers aren’t doing.
Being a downfield threat doesn’t play into McCarron’s strengths. He’s doing his role pretty well on short and intermediate passes.
Iowa needs its other receivers to make plays. Wisconsin was begging Iowa to take shots down field. Twice the Hawkeyes tried; neither time was successful.
Scheel dropped a perfect pass from Beathard on a ball about 35 yards down field, a play that the Hawkeyes sorely need to make.
Scheel ran a stop-and-go route. With the Hawkeyes running all sorts of outs and curls this kind of double move can take advantage of defenders who cheat up on the repeated short tosses. It’s not going to work, though, if the receivers don’t catch the football.
The other deep shot was to wide receiver Jerminic Smith. He failed to haul in what became a little bit of a jump ball. Smith wasn’t aggressive in going to the football, which would have increased his odds of catching the pass, or even getting a pass interference penalty as TV analyst Brian Griese pointed out.
It’s not that Smith, Scheel or other receivers can’t make plays. They just don’t do it often enough. Scheel showed why his potential tantalizes so many fans early in the game when he caught a curl route and took a step back to avoid a tackle before heading up field. Now, this is the play where Scheel stepped out short of the first down marker on a third down. That’s not why it’s highlighted here. It’s brought up because this is one snap where Scheel showed his capabilities.
Johnson’s big day
Iowa defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson kept showing up on film. He made impactful plays again and again. His best series was when he recorded back-to-back sacks. On his first one, he used a bull rush to get Wisconsin offensive lineman Beau Benzschawel moving backwards before taking down the quarterback.
Johnson finished with four tackles, two tackles for loss and two sacks. Johnson wasn’t at his best at the start of Big Ten play, but he’s progressing. The Iowa defense is better when Johnson is playing well.
Missed tackles aren’t new. This is a key reason why the Badgers kept making big pass plays. So was playing in space.
This reception by Wisconsin running back Dane Ogunbowale combines both. He comes out of the backfield and runs out before cutting back across the field. The move gets him separation from Iowa linebacker Josey Jewell. Ogunbowale likely gets stopped for a short gain, if Iowa safety Brandon Snyder puts himself in proper position. Instead, Snyder appeared to misread where Ogunbowale was going, which caused him to miss a tackle.
These kinds of plays are all too common with Iowa safeties this season. The problem, though, spread throughout the defense against Wisconsin. Iowa’s best defender, cornerback Desmond King, failed to wrap up Wisconsin tight end Kyle Penniston. King goes to strip the football instead of making a tackle, which resulted in Penniston running for 54 yards.
Third down blues
Outside of the passing game, the biggest culprit for Iowa failing to score a touchdown was its third down play. The Hawkeyes converted two of 13 attempts. The 15.3 percent conversion rate doesn’t look good. It looks even worse when factoring in that Iowa averaged only 5.5 yards to go on third down.
The passing problems converged on this third-and-2. Beathard threw an incomplete pass, but McCarron doesn’t get open on his short route and the safety heads right over to provide double coverage upon the snap.
The third down struggles came on the run, too. A slower developing play with a pulling guard doesn’t help Iowa here, but the execution up front isn’t there either. Wisconsin appeared to swallow up the running back as multiple defenders got into the backfield.
Wisconsin didn’t make the most of its red zone trips, but it did convert on third down. The Badgers converted 47.1 percent of the time, thanks in large part to needing an average of only 4.6 yards to move the chains.
Iowa did a nice job limiting the impact of the Wisconsin rushing game. The Badgers needed 48 carries to gain 167 yards, but the Badgers controlled the point of attack well enough to ensure the first and second down runs resulted in third-and-manageable situations.
There are a few games where this Iowa team is going to be outclassed, and there won’t be much the Hawkeyes can do to overcome it, especially with the passing attack. That was the case with Wisconsin. This likely won’t be the last time it happens this season.
No one is expecting Iowa to morph into a consistent 300-yard passing outfit overnight. The pieces just aren’t there for that to happen, but the Hawkeyes do need a boost.
It could very well come from Wadley. It’s worth looking into.