When they’re right — and even when they’re not — the Black and Gold leave tattoos of black and blue. For all the ups and occasional downs of the Kirk Ferentz Era as it chugs through Year 18, his Iowa teams have been built first and foremost on the same foundation: Knocking the living hell out of the other guy across the line of scrimmage and letting the rest take care of itself.
Ferentz, once a Padawan to venerated Jedi Masters Joe Moore, Hayden Fry and Bill Belichick, is to linemen what Jim Harbaugh is to quarterbacks: America’s Tackle Whisperer. The point of attack is serious business inside the offensive line room at the Hansen Performance Center, where you’ll find a pair of signs that read:
WE ARE: TOUGH SMART PHYSICAL
WE WILL BE: FEARED RESPECTED HATED
Last Saturday, though? Not so much.
Northwestern’s defense had 5 total sacks before Saturday’s game vs. Iowa. DE Ifeadi Odenigbo sacked CJ Beathard 4 times himself in 38-31 win pic.twitter.com/VzTCn82gZd
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) October 2, 2016
Bad weeks happen to good teams. But when bad weeks become bad fortnights, then bad months, it’s not them.
Team Tough/Smart/Physical hasn’t outrushed the opposition for three straight weekends now, something that hasn’t happened to a Ferentz team since late October and early November of 2013 (North Dakota State, Rutgers, Northwestern now; Ohio State, Northwestern and Wisconsin then). In the second half of its last three contests, two of them home losses to double-digit underdogs, the Team Feared/Respected/Hated has been outscored 44-24 in the second half, 37-17 at Kinnick Stadium.
And if it isn’t lack of will, then what’s the root cause? How is the preseason favorite to win the Big Ten West sitting with home losses to North Dakota State and Northwestern on its ledger after five weeks?
A lack of execution? Lack of talent? Lack of a Plan B? All of the above?
“The biggest issues appear to be replacing (former center) Austin Blythe’s production and (left tackle) Cole Croston not showing much progression,” Pro Football Focus college analyst Josh Liskiewitz offered.
“While he’s proved to be much better at guard this year than he was at tackle last year, at some point they may need to try putting (Boone) Myers back outside — some type of shuffle with Croston, Myers and (right tackle Ike) Boettger may be necessary if Myers has another game or two like this past weekend.”
This past weekend for Myers: A sack allowed, one of two this season. In fact, Liskiewitz has graded Myers out as the seventh-best guard in the Big Ten right now after rating him as No. 13 out of 14 starting left tackles last fall.
On the whole, PFF is good with Myers and Boettger, who “graded poorly vs Rutgers because of run blocking and two penalties, (but) has otherwise done well this year,” Liskiewitz continued, adding that he “did give up a sack and two hurries against Northwestern.” PFF is curious about James Daniels at center — “someone to keep an eye on” — and, frankly, worried about Croston.
“Last year he graded about average on run blocks, well below on pass blocks (six sacks, four hits, 16 hurries),” Liskiewitz said. “This year, he’s gotten progressively worse every game after starting out well versus Miami and Iowa State. No pressures the first two weeks, one hit versus North Dakota State, two hurries vs Rutgers, three sacks and three hurries against Northwestern. Also, he has not graded well on run blocks since Week 1.”
It’s worth noting that Croston and Myers are former walk-ons, a lineage that’s long been a point of program pride. Ferentz has often stressed that his teams hang on a balance of fine margins, play to play, possession to possession, week to week. But with the less-sexy games behind them, Iowa’s 143.2 rushing yards per game — 11th in the Big Ten and down 40 yards from last fall — are the lowest in Iowa City since the Hawkeyes ran for 123 per contest in 2012.
On the flip side, the 182.8 yards rushing yards allowed per game — also 11th in the league — would be largest for a Ferentz team since his second, a group which gave up 194.3 a contest back in 2000.
And that’s the trouble with the little things — after a while, for better or for worse, they start to pile up. Last year, PFF charted Iowa with 86 missed tackles as a team, or 6.14 per week. Through five games this year, the count is 33 missed, or up to 6.6 per contest.
Liskiewitz said just 15 of those whiffs have come from the front seven. Safety Brandon Snyder — another former walk-on — has been credited with eight misses, including three against Rutgers and three versus Northwestern. Running mate Miles Taylor was credited with a team-high 15 last season, followed by Snyder’s predecessor, Jordan Lomax (14), departed linebacker Cole Fisher (14) and middle linebacker Josey Jewell (10).
“No one else had more than four,” Liskiewitz said.
The smaller the margin for error, the larger the small moments get. Marshall Koehn’s game-winning rainbow against Pitt last fall. The fumble that saved a 2015 visit to Wisconsin. The penalties, emotional outbursts and missed tackles against Northwestern. North Dakota State fans dancing in your house. The snapshots that can swing a season to glory or disaster seem to swing these Hawkeyes harder than most.
“The passing game is what it is,” Liskiewitz noted. “(Tight end) George Kittle needs more than four balls thrown his way, which is what he had against Northwestern. I know he had a drop this past week but he should be more of a fixture there with (wide receiver Matt) VandeBerg out. Hopefully, (Riley) McCarron continues to produce like he did last weekend — he’s obviously needed.
“One interesting trend I’m seeing on offense — and I imagine this is at least in part due to wide receivers not getting separation — but we’ve charged (quarterback) C.J. Beathard with four sacks, a hit and a hurry already this year, when last year he was responsible for three sacks and two hits the whole season.”
So if there’s a sliver of silver lining buried beneath the angst, it’s that the burden of protection is shared and that several foibles are probably — hopefully — correctable. The Hawkeyes have done the circle-the-wagons dance before, and Ferentz knows better than anyone that tough times don’t last. Tough teams do.