IOWA CITY, Iowa — When Kirk Ferentz is impressed, he throws out unprompted compliments. There may be no bigger compliment from the Iowa coach than referring to an opponent as a challenge, which he did repeatedly when discussing North Texas’ offense during his press conference Tuesday.
Ferentz said a lot about the Mean Green, but didn’t say the most important thing: North Texas is the ideal tune-up opponent for the Hawkeyes.
Iowa State and its spread offense exposed Iowa’s pass defense last week. The Hawkeyes need to fix it before No. 5 Penn State comes to town on Sept. 23.
Finding a way to stop North Texas’ Air Raid attack is the perfect warmup for facing the Nittany Lions.
“Being 2-0 is good, and it really doesn’t mean anything if we aren’t improving this week,” Ferentz said. “We won’t be playing for games that count in the conference in November.”
Exposed in space
Iowa State got the best of Iowa’s secondary, recording six pass plays of at least 20 yards. Quarterback Jacob Park threw for 347 yards and 5 touchdowns.
Iowa didn’t have an answer for Iowa State’s passing concepts. It’s on tape for anyone to see. Anyone running single-back sets will try to exploit the Hawkeyes.
Penn State did something similar last season, moving the ball so easily during a 41-14 victory that Nittany Lions running back Saquon Barkley though the Hawkeyes quit.
“We looked at the tape and are trying to get better at the mistakes we had,” linebacker Ben Niemann said. “And we are [going to be] tested with similar routes and plays down the road, so we have to be ready to go against those.”
The Iowa State film session was no fun for the defense, but it was necessary. The review created a blueprint to plug the leaks on the back end.
The Cyclones consistently found open space downfield between the linebackers and cornerbacks, and the safeties providing over-the-top help.
The Hawkeyes didn’t jam or re-route receivers and they let them find holes in zone coverages.
“We just have to attack and we can’t sit back,” linebacker Bo Bower said. “We have to be in the right place and fundamentally make tackles, don’t overpursue.”
Communication was another problem. It resulted in coverage busts and open receivers. Twice it happened with cornerback Manny Rugamba in the first half, including this one highlighted in Land of 10’s Iowa film room.
It’s no coincidence Rugamba played in only nickel and dime formations for most of the second half.
“It gets loud in the stadium,” cornerback Michael Ojemudia said of the communication issues. “That was one of the keys that happened. It’s being on the same page and getting calls from the sidelines and getting hand signals instead of just yelling.”
Spreading out Iowa’s defense
A Big 12 team put on an offensive show, especially in the second half, against Iowa. Now one from Conference USA, which uses the most popular offense in the Big 12, will try to do the same this week.
The Mean Green brings the Air Raid to Kinnick. Their average of 328 passing yards per game ranks 17th nationally.
“Really, it’s unlike any we’ve seen this year,” Ferentz said.
But it’s not that different from Penn State or Iowa State. North Texas wants to spread the field, push tempo and create mismatches in space.
Historically, the Hawkeyes’ success against spread offenses is hit and miss. The fan base’s memory is a lot like a poker player’s. The fans don’t vividly recall when the Hawkeyes stopped the spread, but remember every detail about the failures.
|Team||Pass Yds/Game||National Rank|
“We have a lot of ground to cover and we have a lot of guys that can do better, seniors down,” Bower said. “We have a lot of progress that can be made and that will be made, a lot of growing to do.”
Expect nickel and dime formations to be part of the solution. The Hawkeyes relied a lot on their sub-packages against the Cyclones. They turn to them when tight ends aren’t receiving threats.
Iowa wants to play its base 4-3, but the additional defensive backs are a better matchup against a North Texas offense lining up three or four receivers.
“It’s a good package for us,” Ojemudia said. “Teams we are going to face will have 10 personnel (one running back and no tight end), a lot of receivers. Getting our young guys out there that can cover is best for us.”
Why North Texas helps for Penn State
North Texas isn’t Penn State. One has a Heisman Trophy front-runner in the backfield and one of the top tight ends in the country. One is North Texas.
That’s no disrespect to the Mean Green. Conference USA teams don’t bring in the same talent as Big Ten squads.
It’s a good test, though, to see how much progress the defense makes in one week — especially against a team with a quarterback who reminds Ferentz of Penn State signal caller Trace McSorley.
North Texas’ Mason Fine completed 69 percent of his passes for 648 yards and 6 touchdowns in his first two games.
“He is really fast and efficient,” Ferentz said. “He runs the ball and throws it where it needs to go. If you leave somebody open he is going to find that guy.”
The Iowa medical staff has treated linebacker Josey Jewell for an ankle injury this week. Jewell isn’t too concerned about it. The Hawkeyes need their secondary to recover as quickly.
Because if the Hawkeyes can’t stop the Mean Green, there is no chance at slowing down the Nittany Lions.