IOWA CITY, Iowa — The season isn’t lost for Iowa, but at 3-2 the Hawkeyes are searching for answers. There are problems with the line on both sides of the ball. They are 95th nationally in rushing offense and 87th in rushing defense.
What is the solution?
“I think simply just playing Iowa football,” cornerback Desmond King said. “Tough, smart and physical out there on the field each and every down and making smart decisions on the field, and that is holding us back, and playing as physically as can.”
Iowa’s game at Minnesota on Saturday (11 a.m. CT, ESPN2) will be the midpoint of the season. At this juncture the issues the Hawkeyes are dealing with won’t likely go away unless they alter a thing or two.
Here are five things Iowa can do to get back on track.
1. Find an offensive identity
The Northwestern game was far from the ideal look, but the offensive blueprint for going forward was there. It was in the fourth-quarter touchdown drive. It was the kind of Iowa football King talked about. The Hawkeyes went 75 yards in 9 plays.
It was the best series of the game. It happened because Iowa found success by leaning on the run game. Iowa wants to run the ball. It didn’t always happen against the Wildcats.
With wide receiver Matt VandeBerg out, the Hawkeyes can set up the rest of the offense off the ground game.
“We like to establish the run,” Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard said. “We like to have a balanced offense running the ball and throwing the ball. When you don’t run the ball as well that means you have to pass the ball better.”
Right now, Iowa is designed to run the ball better. That happens when the No. 1 wide receiver goes down and pass blocking is struggling. Iowa ran the ball five straight times on its fourth-quarter touchdown drive. The run success set up the big play, a 46-yard play-action pass to wideout Jerminic Smith.
Iowa wants to be balanced, but moving the football needs to start with the running backs taking the first step.
2. Let C.J. be C.J.
Iowa did score 31 points on Northwestern, but struggled when there wasn’t a short field. Only two of the nine non-touchdown drives lasted at least six plays.
The offense won’t turn around, or reach its maximum potential, without Beathard thriving. He’s the best offensive player. He needs confidence. He found it against Northwestern in the short passing game, especially in the second quarter when Iowa went up-tempo and scored two touchdowns.
The quick passing attack can also help combat the pass blocking issues (more on that coming) and Beathard holding the ball too long.
“The more of that we can get, the better off we’re going to be,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “And that’s a team thing, whether it’s protection, guys not getting open fast enough or maybe it’s us not reading the right plays, right places, all those three things factor into it, so that’s what we gotta keep working on.”
The Hawkeyes also need big plays. Four of the five scoring drives coincided with a big return. The fifth saw the Smith 46-yard catch. Two other touchdown drives incorporated explosive passing plays. Jay Scheel’s 22-yard reception set up the second Iowa score and Riley McCarron’s route running ensured he got open on his 15-yard touchdown.
Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis prefers a short, quick passing game. It appears that the offense needs a spark to get into the end zone. The Hawkeyes can’t just rely on the return game to provide it. Iowa needs to make sure it takes shots down field — even if it’s incorporated in a play that has a short passing option that Davis likes.
3. Chip defensive ends
The way Iowa is pass blocking it’s hard to give Beathard enough time to take a shot down the field. It’s not just the six sacks against Northwestern. Iowa is 101st nationally in sacks allowed, averaging 2.8 per game.
Pass protection, especially off the edge, was the main culprit of the defensive pressure in two of the last three games.
“None of us are really happy,” Iowa right tackle Ike Boettger said of the play of the line.
Giving Beathard the necessary time to make his reads and get rid of the ball is the most important thing for the passing game right now. Iowa prefers to pass block with its five up front. It’s not working and the Hawkeyes should consider chipping defensive ends with tight ends or running backs or keeping one of them in to help pass block.
4. Run blitzes
Defensive penetration solves a lot. It’s not there for the Hawkeyes and is a reason why the run defense, especially the interior run defense, is where opponents attack.
Ferentz said improvement can come along slowly during the season on Tuesday. That can include defending the run, where defensive tackles aren’t consistently in position and outside linebackers can be a little late getting to the ball carrier.
Until Iowa shows it can start stopping the run by letting the defensive line control the trenches while all three linebackers swarm to the ball, a compromise can be run blitzes to put the defense in a better position to slow down the run.
5. Player changes
Typically, if a team had a better option than the incumbent starter that player would already be seeing the field. Still, there are some spots where switching around starters or inserting a new player — possibly at safety or outside linebacker — may be the best way for Iowa to address the self-inflicted miscues that keep popping up.
Ferentz doesn’t sound like someone willing to alter his starting lineup.
“Nothing major, but never rule anything out,” Ferentz said.
If Ferentz is going to make a lineup change he may not put it on the depth chart or tip his hand about it during the week.
The status quo isn’t working. Something needs to change. That can include the starting lineup.