Iowa Football

Play Action: Northern Iowa Panthers at Iowa Hawkeyes

Time for the Hawkeyes to fly, kind of literally for the offense

Iowa hosts Northern Iowa at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Kinnick Stadium. (The Gazette)
Iowa hosts Northern Iowa at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Kinnick Stadium. (The Gazette)

Iowa plays host to Northern Iowa this week. Kickoff is 6:30 p.m. and the game will be on Big Ten Network.

The Panthers’ vibe

1. Hard to really say what UNI is right now — Another week, another semi-topic on how many games Iowa has to scout on its opponent. This will clear up next week, I promise.

UNI’s first half in its opener two weeks ago at Montana was dreadful. Montana outgained UNI 273-47. Quarterback Eli Dunne completed just 4 of 17 passes. The Panthers put together four first downs to 16 for Montana.

Drops took first downs away. There were seven first-half penalties, including four personal fouls. UNI also couldn’t deal with Montana QB Dalton Sneed, who threw for almost 200 yards in the first half and scrambled for a 17-yard TD.

After falling behind 26-0 in the first half, UNI rallied before falling 26-23.

There’s probably a representative Mark Farley UNI football team in there somewhere.

2. There’s for sure a QB discussion happening — Against Montana, Colton Howell replaced struggling Eli Dunne in the third quarter and put together three long scoring drives, including a 20-yard TD pass to wide receiver Nick Fossey.

Howell finished 11 of 22 for 140 yards. He also rushed for 22 yards and a touchdown after Dunne completed just 5 of 20 passes for 24 yards and an interception.

Dunne probably gets another look. As UNI’s starter last year, he completed 62.6 percent of his passes and threw 26 TDs. Howell isn’t totally new, either. He saw action in four games and hit 63.3 percent of his passes.

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3. QB will matter if ... — The Panthers can protect the passer. Just glancing through UNI’s O-line, the size is there. Right tackle Spencer Brown is the Panthers’ smallest O-lineman at 290. His backup is Matt Vanderslice. He’s 257.

Two seniors in left tackle Cal Twait and center Ezra Szczyrbak goes along with a junior and two redshirt sophomores. The Panthers gave up two sacks against Montana. Iowa’s D-line has nine in the first two games.

Danger maybe.

4. On defense — D-linemen who wear a single-digit number are trying to prove a point. Hey, I can be athletic, too.

I don’t know if that’s the case with UNI end Rickey Neal Jr., but he had 9.5 sacks and 15.0 tackles for loss last season.

UNI probably will need some time to replace linebacker Jared Farley. He was like UNI’s Josey Jewell last season with 122 tackles.

UNI is a little light up front, but it does have four seniors in the front seven. Plus, Iowa still has questions in the running game.

5. Relevant numbers — UNI put six players on the Missouri Valley Conference’s preseason all-conference squad — Neal, TE Briley Moore, corner Xavior Williams, running back Marcus Weymiller, Twait and wide receiver Isiah Weston, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in late August.

Dunne’s first half probably has to be somewhat puzzling. The 5 of 20 for 24 yards and a pick could say a lot of things. Could be protection. Could be the loss of Weston. Howell came in and did much better, but what exactly went wrong in that first half to send Dunne to the bench?

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The Panthers had 40 rushes for 104 yards against Montana. Weird number. That’s a lot of touches going into a running game that didn’t seem to go very far.

What’s Happening With The Hawkeyes?

1. Passing game — Weird, we haven’t solved this.

Anyway, we’ve burned up a lot of bandwidth on the topic. A certain percentage of you guys look at Iowa QB Nate Stanley’s numbers and can’t get past them. They basically say Stanley has been the 13th best QB in the Big Ten the first two weeks of the season.

I don’t think anyone has arrived at that conclusion yet. If you have, you’re not going to find satisfaction. Remember how long it took for Ferentz to move on the Jake Rudock-C. J. Beathard deal. You don’t want to go through that again. That was a bad vibe that, in my opinion, had a lot to do with the result in 2014.

I think Stanley is a good and maybe great player. Lots of whirling variables for Iowa’s offense the first two weeks.

Completion percentage and yards per attempt have how many elements affecting it? There’s the QB. Of course, the receivers. Pass protection. Play-calling. The goals for particular drives. What are the personnel groups?

No easy answers here. Everyone is going to have to raise their game.

2. What’s Iowa going to get out of running back this week? — Feels like this could be something that pops up every week. Before the passing game showed itself to be ineffective and inefficient in the first two games, everyone was worried about the running game.

After week 1, the worry subsided. After week 2 and 2.92 yards per carry against Iowa State, what now? Obviously, 2.9 is a losing number for Iowa. But the Hawkeyes can win games with 36 carries. They also faced one of the top four defenses they will face this season (Wisconsin, Penn State, Northwestern and ISU).

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So, let’s not dwell on the production. Can Toren Young and Mekhi Sargent get them there this week? The answer is yes. Young is averaging 5.24 yards on 29 carries. Of course, big runs against Northern Illinois in week 1 helped. Sargent is at 2.83 yards per carry.

If you’re wondering about their big-play ability, that might be fair. If you’re wondering about their effectiveness against Power Five defenses, you should be. They’re still very new.

3. On the offensive line — I’m just getting to know offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs. He’s new to the interview thing. It’s not a big deal, try to think of it like taking speech in college. He’s good in front of the microphones or whatever we’re using now to record people talking.

He was asked about how the O-line is doing and answered the question simply and completely.

“The finishes have been really good, we’re finishing people,” Wirfs said. “There’s going to be assignment errors and stuff, but you’ve just got to keep cleaning those up. I don’t think it’s been too bad.”

The yards per carry against ISU?

“It’s not what we wanted, we obviously want to be better every week,” he said. “It can be a little frustrating. It’s not what we wanted.”

They watch the film with their coaches. The “close” thing is frustrating, but there is a little bit of that going on.

“You’re seeing the flashes of how good we can be, the possibilities,” guard Ross Reynolds said. “We just need to out and do it in a game. We see it in practice, we need to go out and execute that during the game.”

That’s your offensive line update.

4. How good is Iowa’s defense? — Don’t worry about it. You’ll find out eventually. Probably not this week.

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Iowa’s defense is obviously playing at a high level. If the numbers say Stanley is the 13th best QB in the Big Ten (stats don’t paint the whole room), the numbers say Iowa’s defense is No. 1 in the Big Ten. The Hawkeyes are No. 1 in scoring defense (5.0 points per game), total defense (199.5 yards per game), sacks (9.0) and fourth down stops (two).

That’s a lot of the things you want to be No. 1 in.

“Between the players and the coaches, we like where we’re at so far,” senior safety Jake Gervase said. “At the same time, there are a lot of things we need to clean up. Last week, we had some communication stuff where everyone wasn’t on the same page. That’s week 2, that can happen, but at the same time, we’ve got to clean that stuff up.

“We know we have a special group up front in the D-line, if we’re doing our job on the back end, communicating, reading our keys and staying on top and making plays, it could be a special year. At the same time, it’s week 3.”

Agree with everything Gervase said right there. Get excited about this group, but wait on assigning it the “Great Eraser” status.

5. Relevant numbers — What Wirfs said about the O-line, “I don’t think it’s been too bad,” last week against the Cyclones, Iowa allowed no sacks, just one QB hit and three pressures.

Just 15 plays of 10-plus yards in the first two games for Iowa’s offense. That’s last in the Big Ten. Seven 20-plus plays is tied for 10th. This might be a problem. Well, it is a problem.

Did Iowa’s blitzes look better against Iowa State because the D-line has everyone’s eyes? That’s probably it. Iowa has been able to play coverage and let the four D-linemen eat. Last week, Iowa rushed four in almost 85 percent of pass-rush situations.

Prediction

Iowa 31, Northern Iowa 7

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Make it a line of scrimmage game. Do that and Iowa won’t need to block two field goals to walk away from this one with all digits intact.

l Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

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