While I’m no football expert, I do play one in this column. And in spite of having never set foot on the turf other than to hug Herky, anyone who’s been a fan as long as I have can’t help but have formed some opinions.
If you’ve watched the Hawks for any length of time, you know that they’ve got a few go-to plays that are the bread and butter of their game. Sit through a single series, and you quickly realize that our offensive strategy is to run two out of every three downs. Yet, in the UNI and Wisconsin games there was some spark of a passing game that sent Hawkeye hearts aflutter.
So in celebration of the fundamentals that make the Hawks great, and the more surprising elements we’ve seen so far this season (four games in, as of press time), I’ve compiled my short-list of the year’s hits and misses. You are welcome to disagree, as is your right and privilege in a free society.
The run: Why mess with a good thing?
If you have even the most remote understanding of Iowa football, you know that we run a lot. For the last four seasons, the Hawkeyes have averaged over 160 yards per game on the ground. They’re on pace once again this year, averaging 167 rushing yards per game and 4.1 yards per play.
Iowa runs a zone scheme out of either an I- or single-back formation. When in a single back formation, the zone allows the entire line to sort of shift over and block for the running back. When running out of the I, Iowa often sends their fullback up the gut with the running back acting as lead blocker. Hawkeyes run a lot of different and complicated variations on this theme, but for people who have lives, this is all you really need to know.
Each of our three rotating running backs have put up solid numbers so far this season, with Toren Young racking up the most total yardage to date at 268.
“Our offense, whether it’s the throw or anything else that we’re doing, is going to be determined by how well we can run the ball when everybody in the stadium knows we’re going to run the ball,” explained Offensive Coordinator Brian Ferentz during a media conference on Sept. 26.
Yep, like that Leonard Cohen song says, everybody knows. But for the most part, it works. And if you’re a fan of the Hawks, you’re a fan of the run. Plain and simple. Sprinkle in a couple of quick slants to a tight end, a couple of laterals, and you’ve got yourself a game.
The D: Best at basic
In the lingo of the times, “basic” describes pumpkin spice-sipping Ugg wearers whose ass cracks are clearly visible through their yoga pants. But when applied to the Hawkeye defense, “basic” takes on a whole meaning: sound, reliable and freaking awesome.
Iowa runs a classic four-three defense, with a blitz thrown in every now and then to shake things up. Despite losing some key power-players from the 2017 season (Josey Jewell, Ben Niemann, Bo Bower. Sigh.) the 2018 Hawkeye D has barely missed a beat. They currently rank second in the Big Ten in total defense after Michigan, and fifth overall in the FSC.
The Hawk’s defensive line is deep, as is the all-new linebacking corps. There are plenty of guys to rotate in and out of the mix, from Nick Niemann to Barrington Wade, Djimon Colbert, Jack Hockaday and even the beleaguered Amani Jones.
“Nobody really cares who is the starter. Everybody understands that they might play. They might play 10, they might play 15. They might play the whole game,” Defensive Coordinator Phil Parker said during the Sept. 26 media conference.
It’s that kind of depth and team-first attitude that’ll keep this defense rolling all season.
Stanley’s arm: I can haz pass playz?
Here’s an interesting stat: As of the Wisconsin game, Iowa had more total passing yards than rushing — 903 to be exact. And while we still had more rushing TDs (seven vs. five), we had more first downs off the pass than the run.
It’s common knowledge that you can’t have a good running game without at least the threat of a passing game. Opposing defenses will crowd the line every time if they can see a run coming. (Which, in all honesty, is pretty easy when you’re playing the Hawks.)
Somewhere around the Northern Iowa game, Hawk fans began to see a glimmer of something good. Given enough space, and enough time to get set, quarterback Nate Stanley’s a smart, accurate passer. Tight ends T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant have been a vital part of the action all season, coming to life when it mattered most in the Wisconsin game. We’ve even seen some play-action passes to Nick Easley and fastest-Hawkeye-on-the-field Ihmir Smith-Marsette in the last few match-ups.
Being a wide receiver at Iowa must be one of the most humbling jobs out there. But Easley and Smith-Marsette have talent, and Stanley’s got an arm and a well-equipped O-line to buy him time. Let’s get these guys integrated even more into the game, yeah?
The quarterback not-so-sneaky sneak
We all saw it against Wisconsin: Rather than taking the easy three after a nice offensive drive in the first quarter, head coach Kirk Ferentz decided to “roll the dice” and go for it on fourth and inches. Except, according to his son Brian, the Hawkeyes Do. Not. Roll. Dice.
“There’s never a spur of the moment decision,” Brian explains. “When we go for it on fourth down, we know we’re going for it on fourth down on Friday afternoon when we sit down and meet and make our strategy for the game. We know exactly what it is.”
So if you knew you were going to run a quarterback sneak on Friday afternoon, why not clue in your QB that you can’t just kind of lean over and plow straight into one of the best defensive lines in the country? You gotta superman dive that shit, Stanley.
The predictability: Yawns before long bombs
Which leads me to one of my top overall complaints as a Hawkeye fan: There are very few to zero surprises.
Brian Ferentz describes it like this: “You prepare for the moment when the moment comes. The decisions have already been made. You put them in the game, and if you’ve done your job properly, then things work. If you haven’t, then they don’t, and you need to go back and evaluate why it went wrong.”
This interests me as a fan, because it sometimes seems like Ferentz is coaching for a different game than the one I’m watching. He’s not responding to what’s happening on the field, he’s executing a set of predetermined moves.
Not saying this strategy is inherently incorrect, but how many of us have that luxury in our jobs? Where, say, something you methodically plan just doesn’t work in actual execution? The returns aren’t there, the stock prices tank, customers leave in droves — “But, boss, I followed the plan.”
Ferentz’s reasoning is that they’ve prepared for everything.
My counter is that some things simply can’t be prepared for.
The big plays. What big plays? ’xactly.
So far this year, Iowa’s longest offensive play was a 48-yard pass from Stanley to Mekhi Sargent. Young broke the year’s longest run against the Badgers for a gain of 40. On the defensive side, we’ve recorded just two interceptions and four forced fumbles.
While we’re not known for being flashy, the Hawkeyes have to find more ways to make big plays. Last year, that game-changer was cornerback Josh Jackson, picking off balls left and right, shifting momentum and winning hearts.
Who’ll step it up this year?
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 252.