Five bullet points from Iowa’s home loss to Northwestern:
1. The weird awkwardness of the losing postgame
Desmond King had just punched out after a mega day. The senior cornerback piled up 162 return yards and became the first Hawkeye since 1998 with 75 return yards in kick and punt returns.
King also had two pass breakups. He left his piece of the Hawkeye world nice and tidy during Iowa’s 38-31 loss to Northwestern (2-3, 1-1 Big Ten) at Kinnick Stadium Saturday.
He said stuff in his postgame that didn’t come out the way he wanted. Kind of like the way the game went for the Hawkeyes (3-2, 1-1), who allowed 198 rushing yards, six sacks and flubbed away golden starting field position (their own 40-yard line). It really was an effort that was incomplete all over the place.
“Knowing that we gave up a lot of big plays on the back end, that’s not what we’re looking for,” King said. “We did what we could. They really out-coaches us a little bit.”
Oh really, out-coached?
“Really, not out-coached,” King said. “They played their hearts out. Credit to Northwestern. They came and they really wanted to win this game.”
In his next thought, King said Iowa just wasn’t ready. This was something spoken by other players after the North Dakota State loss. It is something they say to get through the weirdness and awkwardness of the losing postgame interview.
“It wasn’t necessarily not being ready,” King said. “They executed more on that play than us.”
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That was King, still in his football pants, trying to stay cool and get the heck away from the lectern and the mic. Themes emerged. The biggie was “there’s a fine line between winning and losing.”
Right now, that’s the stripe on Iowa’s helmet.
2. Real talk with Kirk Ferentz
Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz had some real talk here. He probably had to after his team left 67,047 fans at Kinnick stewing in their own boil (seriously THE ANGRIEST I’VE EVER SEEN THE PLACE). Ferentz was asked questions mostly about struggles in the passing game, from protection to tempo to general execution.
“It’s a little bit of everything,” Ferentz said. “Protection has not always been what it needs to be. Sometimes, it looks like there’s nothing happening, there’s no rhythm or tempo to it, and we’re holding the ball back there, and that’s not a good thing, either.”
Iowa has now allowed 14 sacks this season. Against the Wildcats, defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo beat left offensive tackle four times for sacks. It was nothing tricky, it was straight pass rush on passing downs and losing a physical battle. That said, anytime Odenigbo closed, Beathard froze. The senior QB stopped moving his feet and took the sack. Except when he took off toward the line of scrimmage and threw late in the flat for an interception on Iowa’s final play.
Ferentz said he wasn’t convinced getting Croston help was the answer. Beathard said he felt pressure. When they reviewed the video Sunday, they saw a lot of receiver targets that weren’t open, that couldn’t release from aggressive press coverage and that anything that wasn’t a play-action pass or a quick rhythm throw was doomed.
Iowa’s passing game is a turtle stuck on its back in the middle of the road. It’s trying to find a little wiggle (literally, for Iowa, anything consistently makable), but it hasn’t and the car is headed right for it.
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3. Now you see the no huddle and now you don’t
Northwestern took a 17-7 lead and Iowa went three-and-out. The Hawkeyes went no-huddle on their next series and did find some rhythm, with a seven-play drive that ended in running back Akrum Wadley’s 6-yard TD run. Beathard completed a pair of passes to wide receiver Riley McCarron, who had a hand in Iowa’s return game with a 38-yard punt return and a 54-yard kick return), with one on rhythm and another off play-action.
The no-huddle disappeared. And then an offense that fought itself all day tried a screen pass to Wadley on a third-and-4 from Northwestern’s 7 on the first drive of the third quarter while Iowa had a 21-17 lead. On a third-and-4 from the 7, Iowa tried a screen pass with a ball thrown 7 yards behind the line of scrimmage.
On a pass protection question, Ferentz used “it looked like we were kind of stuck in sand there” and “it’s not much fun to watch it” and “it felt pretty bad there.”
“Everything is open again to discussion, but that’s something for us as coaches,” Ferentz said. “We’re going to have to find something to get our guys on track a little faster, a little quicker, and that’s a coach’s thing. That’s also a player’s thing.
“We’ve all got to work together and we will. We’ll work together to get this fixed.”
The first step would be losing everything in the playbook that calls for a 5- or 7-step drop. And probably dump shotgun formations. It’s a little bit of everything that’s not working.
4. Serious lack of disruption
Meanwhile on defense, that’s going to continue to bleed to death until it gets more disruptive. Iowa has 24.0 tackles for loss, 11th in the Big Ten. That, coupled with big plays (Iowa allowed a 58-yard TD run and a 25-yard TD pass), allowed Northwestern to carry out fakes in the run game and operate with a relative level of comfort on offense.
“Some of it could be detail stuff,” said linebacker Josey Jewell, who made 16 tackles with half a sack, 1.5 tackles for loss and a pass breakup. “People understanding their gaps and what they have, people really understanding their roles and what they can do and can’t do.”
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That translates into players not beating blocks and not completing their jobs. That leaves gaps like the one Justin Jackson found for a 58-yard TD run late in the third quarter.
“We had times where we were really good on first and second down,” free safety Brandon Snyder said. “There were drives where we just got pounded and they were in third-and-3 and third-and-4 and that’s tough.”
5. The Yoda factor
This is Phil Parker’s fifth season as Iowa’s defensive coordinator. The big change on Iowa’s defensive staff was Jim Reid’s departure to become defensive coordinator at Boston College, his hometown. Seth Wallace was promoted to Reid’s spot as linebackers coach.
Does Iowa miss Reid? It’s impossible to say without knowing the inside evaluation of how defenses are called and what evaluation goes into personnel. Anyone who pulls a “eureka” out of this is speculating, looking under rocks for an explanation. That said, it’s indisputable that the inside defense is grasping with gap adjustments, twists and run blitzes.
In a one-on-one with Ferentz last season, I asked about defensive staff (Reid was the linebackers coach at this point). Here’s the takeaway:
Parker is an example of sewing in the interconnectedness.
“Just like I’ve talked about the staff evolving, this is Phil’s first coordinator job,” Ferentz said. “He’s the best secondary coach I’ve ever worked with on any level. Now, it’s kind of like the offensive room, it’s really settled. I think the defensive room is the same. Everyone knows each other’s moves.
“I think Seth (Wallace) being in there, too, with his background and Seth was a coordinator, too (Valdosta State before coming to Iowa before last season). Having Jim (Reid, former defensive coordinator at Virginia before coming to Iowa before 2013) in there, too.
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“I know when Jim got here, he was very reassuring to Phil, like, ‘Hey, that was a great call.’ Phil beats himself up, like we all do. ‘Why did I call that?’ ‘That was a good call, sometimes a player has to make a play.’ When you have a veteran coach saying things like that, just like our team has a good vibe, our staff has the same thing. Everybody is supporting each other. We all have doubts. If you’re making decisions, it’s easy to say a day later, ‘What did I do that for?’ You didn’t just pull it out of your butt, there’s a reason why you did it and we all agreed on it.”
1. Northwestern RB Justin Jackson
The junior had 171 yards on 26 carries. He was the best player on the field. He made everyone on NU’s offense better, including QB Clayton Thorson, who hadn't performed like that this season until he had a running game he could lean on.
2. Northwestern LB Anthony Walker
Ten tackles and one QB hurry, but he pushed all the right buttons vs. Iowa’s run all day. Iowa rushed for just 107 yards on 35 carries (when you take out the six sacks and the negative yardage). That’s 3.05 a carry. That’s part of the turtle on its back.
3. Northwestern WR Austin Carr
He ran circles around Iowa’s secondary for six catches for 73 yards and three TDs. His best play might’ve been on a fourth-and-3 at Iowa’s 23. With safety Miles Taylor giving him an 8-yard cushion, Carr ran an out route a comfy 3 yards past the sticks. He gave Thorson a low-risk, no-brainer throw and an easy conversion that ended up as a field goal.
— If FS Brandon Snyder doesn’t start wrapping up when he tackles, his job will be in jeopardy.
Yes, he forced the fumble on Jackson with a wicked hit. But on Carr’s 25-yard game-winner, Snyder stuck a shoulder into the NU wide receiver at around the 10. Carr bounced off and ran free into the end zone. That’s the difference between bending and breaking.
— It’s not just Snyder. If Iowa had viable, reliable replacements, a lot of jobs in the front seven would be on the line. Sure, communication is part of the problem, but there are more and bigger problems.
Halfway through the season, “fixable” becomes less and less believable.
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— Last year vs. Wisconsin, the ESPN broadcasters, Steve Levy and Brock Huard, sat with UW’s defensive staff, which, at the time, included Dave Aranda, who’s now a $1 million-plus coordinator at LSU, for the preproduction meeting. Huard came away with the term “arrogance in protection.”
It basically means Iowa does what it does. And part of what it does is it expects its offensive tackles to win one-on-one battles in passing situations (including shotgun snaps).
So, everyone watched while NU DE Ifeadi Odenigbo power around Cole Croston for four sacks and at least two more pressures, including the one that eventually Beathard turned into a force and a killing interception.
Ferentz didn’t sound like he planned to give the OTs any help in the future (Ike Boettger gave one of these up, too). The rhythm in the passing game, which includes receivers getting open and the QB getting rid of the ball, has to fit together better and Ferentz did promise a look into that.
— Nothing went right for Iowa on Jackson’s 58-yarder. He ran right, through a gap that blocking created between DE Matt Nelson and DT Jaleel Johnson. Jewell also was blocked on this one. So, it was a really big gap.
Taylor swooped down from safety and had Jackson in his face really before he could react. He bit on a fake, but he did at least keep Jackson on the inside of the field, where maybe some help would be found.
Weakside linebacker Bo Bower wasn’t blocked on the play, but did take three steps into the line of scrimmage and ended up watching Jackson take off. Snyder also got caught up on the line of scrimmage on the weakside. He was the last line of defense and he was left reaching.
NU executed. Iowa was executed.
— I counted seven blitzes from Iowa’s defenses. Two of those went for TD passes. One was the crazy play on the sideline where Carr walked the tightrope and a 50-50 call went NU’s way for a TD. Taylor got spun around and Carr and Thorson just made plays (there was a ton of Northwestern making plays and Iowa not making plays).
The second one was a safety blitz that Taylor tipped too early, moving toward the line of scrimmage, giving the NU RB a target and giving the slot receiver and QB a read. Thorson threw right into the blitz and Carr had a 25-yard TD that gave NU a 38-24 lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
Up Next — at Minnesota (3-1, 0-1 Big Ten)
— Minnesota will be without special teamer Jaylen Waters for the first half this week after he took a shot at Penn State kicker Joey Julius, you know, the big fella.
— The Gophers won that thing last week at Penn State until they didn’t, writes Penn Live’s David Jones.
The Numbers Game
Touchdowns in the red zone
Iowa — 4 of 5
Northwestern — 3 of 4
Tracking the Hawkeyes: Week 1 vs. Miami — 5 of 6 (off), 2 of 3 (def); Week 2 vs. ISU — 4 of 4 (off), 0 of 1 (def); Week 3 vs. NDSU — 2 of 2 (off), 2 of 3 (def); week 4 vs. Rutgers — 0 of 1 (off), 1 of 4 (def); Week 5 vs. Northwestern — 4 of 5 (off), 3 of 4 (def);
The takeaway: This is a great number for Iowa. It leads the Big Ten with an 83.3 TD percentage from inside the opponent’s 20 and is fifth in the nation. The defense’s numbers aren’t bad, either, allowing eight red zone TDs (53.33 percent, sixth in the Big Ten). Too many big plays against Northwestern, two TDs from outside of the red zone.
Three and outs forced by the defense
Iowa — 6
Northwestern — 6
Tracking the Hawkeyes: Week 1 vs. Miami — 3 (def), 2 (off); Week 2 vs. ISU — 4 (def), 1 (off); Week 3 vs. NDSU — 0 (def), 5 (off); Week 4 vs. Rutgers — 2 (off), 3 (def); Week 5 vs. Northwestern — 6 (def), 6 (off)
The takeaway: Long dead stretches for the offense are killing the, uh, offense. And really, the defense, too. Iowa is 95th in the nation in time of possession with 28:01. Last year, it was 30th (31:37). Even in 2014, it was 29th (31:26).
(50% of needed yards on first down, 70% of needed yards on second down, or 100% of needed yards on third or fourth down)
Iowa — 36.7 percent (25 efficient plays out of 68 total)
Northwestern — 41.6 percent (30 of 72)
Tracking the Hawkeyes: Week 1 vs. Miami — 54 percent (off), 51.4 (def); Week 2 vs. ISU — 52 percent (off), 34 (def); Week 3 vs. NDSU — 37 percent (off), 43 (def); Week 4 vs. Rutgers — 39.3 (off), 37.6 (def); Week 5 vs. Northwestern — 36.7 (off), 41.6 (def);
The takeaway: Here’s your losing number. Just three efficient plays for Iowa in the third quarter, while Northwestern had 10, including a pair of 15-yard penalties vs. Iowa.
Iowa — 3
Northwestern — 3
Tracking the Hawkeyes: Week 1 vs. Miami — 7 (off), 3 (def); Week 2 vs. ISU — 6 (off), 2 (def); Week 3 vs. NDSU — 3 (off), 5 (def); Week 4 vs. Rutgers — 5 (off), 3 (def); Week 5 vs. Northwestern — 3 (off), 3 (def);
The takeaway: All three long plays for Iowa were in the passing game. Northwestern had two 20-plus runs. Maybe this is what Ferentz meant by “stuck in sand.” This is what “stuck in sand” looks like.
The Iowa/Greg Davis definition of explosive (it’s 12-plus runs and 16-plus passes): 5 — Beathard’s arm and feet accounted for all five. “Stuck in sand” also is rushing for 107 yards. This is why you’re really frustrated with Iowa. The stuff that was supposed to work (OL and DL) isn’t working very well. (Tracking: Miami 9, ISU 10, NDSU 4, Rutgers 11, Northwestern 5)
Magic Points (scores inside of two minutes)
Iowa — 0
Northwestern — 0
Tracking the Hawkeyes: Week 1 vs. Miami — 0 (off), 0 (def); Week 2 vs. ISU — 0 (off), 0 (def); Week 3 vs. NDSU — 0 (off), 3 (def); Week 4 vs. Rutgers — 7 (off), 0 (def); Week 5 vs. Northwestern — 0 (off) 0 (def);
The takeaway: A week after a 99-yard TD drive to end the first half, Iowa was set up for success with a first down at its 29 with 1:18 left before halftime. There was a non-call on a pass interference that threw the Iowa sideline out of whack. Several coaches blistered the head linesman and Iowa got a sideline warning. It was third-and-8, but Iowa seemed really off after the non-call. Third down was a sack and they punted.
Iowa looked off a few times on the non-calls. Ferentz tried to control the emotions of the team and the sideline, but it and an entire stadium full of angry people seemed to wash over him.
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