ANN ARBOR, Mich. — If Iowa had the running game in mind for Saturday’s 10-3 loss at No. 16 Michigan, it got flushed with 9:36 in the second quarter.
Down 10-3 with 9:36 left in the second, the No. 17 Hawkeyes (4-1, 1-1 Big Ten) called seven consecutive passing plays (one nullified by penalty). In that run, quarterback Nate Stanley hit wide receiver Brandon Smith for a 34-yard gain, converting a third-and-22.
The touchdown deficit seemed to set off alarms for offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz. The second quarter was the sign of things to come. That 10-3 hung on the Michigan Stadium scoreboard for 3 1/2 quarters. The Hawkeyes had some success with the pass, but the Michigan defense stiffened, holding Iowa to the 3 points despite moving inside UM’s 36 six times.
The run wasn’t going to be the cure. Iowa averaged 2.1 yards on nine carries in the first. In the second, it was 2.3 on six carries. You see where this is going. Iowa began the third quarter with a little momentum (runs of 15, 5 and 5 gave Iowa a whiff of success).
The 10-3 turned into panic in the fourth quarter. Just one called run for 2 yards. Twenty of Iowa’s final 21 plays were called passes.
“I think it came up Tuesday, how balanced we are or how close to being balanced and that ideally is what we want to do,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “That being said, the way football is, typically, there are going to be games where it ends up going one way or the other.
“You try to play based on what’s going on that day and then get in circumstances like the second half there, getting into some long-yardage situations or you’re not getting the kind of yards you want to get on first down, that just kind of alters your viewpoint a little bit.”
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No, the Hawkeyes weren’t going to run their way out of 10-3 at Michigan (4-1, 2-1). Without the threat, the Wolverines committed extra bodies to rushing the passer.
Iowa gave up eight sacks. Generally, in the first half, Iowa allowed three sacks when losing one-on-one matchups. With no running game to worry about, defensive coordinator Don Brown was able to activate UM’s linebackers with an array of blitzes that isolated speedy linebackers on Iowa’s inside protection.
It all worked.
Quarterback Nate Stanley didn’t manage the pocket well. He didn’t anticipate pressure and added misery with retreats that were spin moves after backpedaling. Iowa didn’t vary snap counts, a difficult proposition in a stadium full of 111,519. Without the run, there was nothing to slow the rush.
“No matter how much practice you have going on silent cadence, there’s still some communication that has to happen at the line of scrimmage, as far as who I tell them to block,” Stanley said. “If they’re lining up late, that puts a time crunch on us. They did a great job of keeping us on our toes.”
Now, here are the cautions. It was one loss. The season isn’t over. The Hawkeyes have another shot at doing something meaningful Saturday night at Kinnick Stadium against No. 10 Penn State (5-0, 2-0), which has won its first two Big Ten games by a combined 94-7 (Maryland and Purdue). The Nittany Lions sacked the QB 14 times in those two games, including 10 last week vs. the Boilermakers.
The Big Ten West is still there, although No. 8 Wisconsin looks like a mighty tall mountain.
If the Hawkeyes are going to negotiate any of this, they will have to run the ball, better and more consistently.
Can they? It’s a valid question.
Every week is different. The Hawkeyes face different circumstances whether it’s the road or a change in personnel or game plan. The one pattern that has definitely emerged is Iowa falling short in the last three seasons in the rushing game against ranked teams.
There are outliers in these eight games. Iowa rushed for 243 yards against No. 5 Ohio State in 2017. In 2018, Iowa rushed for 135 yards at No. 17 Penn State. Beyond that, here are the raw numbers in those games — 82, 19, 89, 25, 64 and the 1 yard at Michigan on Saturday. Yes, sack yards are counted and that does skew the numbers, but that’s just mitigation.
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Against ranked teams in these three seasons under Brian Ferentz, the Hawkeyes have averaged 2.45 yards on 235 rushes. Iowa is 1-7 in those games, the kinds of games that make seasons for the Hawkeyes meaningful.
This isn’t an indictment. It’s the numbers and it also happens to be a big reason why Iowa doesn’t have nice things, like division titles and trips to the Big Ten championship game.
Cautions, though. Everything is still in play. This is, however, a big fix in-season.
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