Upside Down Iowa Might Not Be Any Different
Photo Credit: Aaron Babcock

Upside Down Iowa Might Not Be Any Different

November 22, 2018


Originally published on July 26th, this one was pretty much right on the money. 

Iowa has become a really poor rushing unit and a team that relies on quarterback Nate Stanley to create positive plays.

The ground game has produced counting stats, but by both efficiency and explosiveness metrics, Iowa ranks among the worst in FBS football. All three of the Hawkeye rushers this season (Mekhi Sargent, Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin) have dealt with injuries. They've got 1,463 yards amongst the three of them, but they've combined to hit at a 4.4 yards-per-carry rate.

Stanley's touchdowns are down from last season (26 to 21), his picks are up (six to nine) and his completion rate has remained terrible. Statistically speaking, there has been a slight regression in the passing game from last season to this one, but not enough to make a huge difference because of a full complement of weapons Stanley has at his disposal.

Tight end Noah Fant is having another terrific season, even if fans want him on the field more. Snap counts are low for Fant but he has still managed 59 targets, 38 catches (64.4 percent catch rate), 507 yards and seven scores (team-high). 

Opposite him, sophomore TJ Hockensen has blossomed. He's got a team-leading 653 yards and six scores, with a team-high 41 catches on a team-high 73.2 percent catch rate. 

Wideout Nick Easley's numbers are down across the board but he's opening up space for other guys. Ihmir Smith-Marsette had 18 catches and 187 yards as a freshman. He's got 18 catches again this season for 297 yards. He's catching less than half his targets but the ones he hauls in go for huge plays.

Same old, same old for Iowa defensively.

The Hawkeyes are one of the country's best at preventing the big play (second nationally in big play rate) and forcing teams to drive it. With a completely new linebacking corps, the front line has picked up the slack.

Iowa is third in the Big Ten in sacks, a top-25 unit nationally in sack rate and elite on blitz downs. Defensive end Parker Hesse has 10.5 run stuffs, nine tackles for loss and four sacks on the season. Sophomore defensive end A.J. Epenesa has a team-leading 15 run stuffs, 13.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks. He's not a primary starter. 

The other starting defensive end, Anthony Nelson, has 7.5 sacks.

The defense is anchored by the front line. The secondary has been good-not-great in pass coverage but the line helps everything.

Iowa started 6-1 but then dropped three straight. The common theme? A complete inability to run the ball and reliance on Stanley.


2017 Record: 8-5 | Returning offensive starters: 7 | Returning defensive starters: 6

When head coach Kirk Ferentz promoted his son, Brian, to offensive coordinator last season, there was an immediate and visible change in the attack. The running was bad and the passing game was what made things tick. Call it the Upside Down Iowa. An offense that ranked seventh in yards per point (11.67) was 109th in rushing yards per play (4.35), 117th in explosive-run percentage (11.18) and 90th in opportunity rate (36.6 percent). So, in the absence of its usual prominent ground attack, Iowa turned quarterback Nate Stanley loose.

Expect more of the same in 2018.

Expect it because Iowa went and graduated 77 percent of last year’s rushing attempts. Akrum Wadley ran for 1,114 yards and 10 scores on 253 runs and his backup, James Butler, added another 396 yards. They’re both gone. Fullback Drake Kulick and two all-Big Ten linemen (center James Daniels and right guard Sean Welsh) have departed as well.

Reinforcements for the run game will come from relatively green runners — Toren Young, 45 career carries, Ivory Kelly-Martin, 20 career carries, or JUCO transfer Mekhi Sargent — or entirely green runners — true freshman Henry Geil or redshirt freshman Kyshaun Bryan. 

There was probably going to be a little bit of “back to the drawing board” with the run game after how bad it was last year, but this is completely starting over.

Conversely, the passing game returns two of Stanley’s three highest-target wideouts and both of its top tight ends. Leading receiver Nick Easley will be a senior after a 51-catch, 530-yard junior campaign and Ihmir Smith-Marsette flashed big-play potential as a freshman last year, but the real weapon of the bunch is tight end Noah Fant. 

As a sophomore, Fant caught 11 touchdowns on 30 receptions. He had a yards-per-catch average of 16.5 but a success rate of only 45.8 percent. At 6-foot-5, 232 pounds, he’s exactly what you want in a take-the-top-off threat but given the relatively green running back room, he could see an uptick in production in the intermediate passing game this season as well. Head coach Kirk Ferentz alluded to as much during his appearance behind the podium at Big Ten Media Days.

“Certainly he’s more comfortable and more adept at what he’s doing now because he’s got some experience behind him, and just like everything about him, he’s been a tremendous guy in our program,” Ferentz said. “If we’re going to have a good season this year, we certainly need players like Noah to have a tremendous year. And I can’t think of a reason why he won’t.”

Stanley was good last year — 26:6 TD-to-INT ratio, 26th in passing S&P+ — but he needs to show some improvement in 2018 as well. The Hawkeye quarterback was 10th in the Big Ten in completion rate (55.8 percent) and wasn’t explosive enough to make up for it (92nd in explosive-pass percentage). 

With Iowa, you almost expect seven or eight wins every season and usually, the defense can balance out a so-so offense. Again, this year might be different.

Iowa is replacing an all-timer at linebacker in Josey Jewell along with two other starters in that unit. Those three — Jewell, Bo Bower and Ben Neimann — were the team’s three leading tacklers. Only one guy had more sacks than Jewell (junior-to-be Anthony Nelson), only one guy had more pass break-ups (Josh Jackson, who is also gone) and nobody had more tackles for loss.

This was a defense that ranked 32nd in yards per play, 5th in explosive play percentage and 11th in yards per point. But more than that, they didn’t get beat in short yardage situations (fifth in power success rate) and the secondary kept everything in front of them (1st in explosive-pass percentage). It’s not a “fun” brand of defense — Iowa ranked ninth in the conference in rushing yards per play and sixth in passing yards per play — but it’s maddening for opposing coordinators. No chunk plays here, work for it. The Hawkeyes were fifth nationally in explosive-play percentage and 13th in yards per point.

Those are good building blocks to have in place when replacing the middle of a defense, you just never want to have to replace the entire middle. 

And because those linebackers were so good, it’s easy to forget about the loss at corner. Jackson had 18 pass break-ups and eight interceptions last year; no one else had more than six PBUs or three INTs. Iowa will have two juniors and a sophomore to work with on the edges, but Jackson’s loss will be felt.

Perhaps the stars of the defense just shift a level backward from the linebackers to the safeties this season. Jack Gervase (who happened to have both the six PBUs and three INTs last year) and Amani Hooker both return after solid 2017 campaigns and they should be joined by senior Brandon Snyder. 

In 2016, Snyder was second on the team in tackles, had three that went for loss from the safety spot, had three picks, four pass break-ups and three forced fumbles. He blew out his knee, came back for one game last season, recorded a pick-six and then hurt the knee again. A healthy Snyder would mean good things for Ferentz and defensive coordinator Phil Parker.

As is usually the case in Iowa City, Ferentz will have tools to work with, we just don’t exactly know what the finished product will look like. They’ll play four teams projected to be in the top-50 by S&P+ but three of those four come at home. ESPN’s FPI gives the Hawkeyes an 8-4 projection. So, I guess it might just end up looking like it always does. 

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