Iowa Football

Light at the end of the tunnel for Iowa's passing game or is that a train?

If the head coach thinks QB Nate Stanley is 'pressing,' he is


Iowa Hawkeyes quarterback Nate Stanley (4) motions as he prepares to throw a pass during the third quarter of their CyHawk series college football game at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, Sep. 8, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Iowa Hawkeyes quarterback Nate Stanley (4) motions as he prepares to throw a pass during the third quarter of their CyHawk series college football game at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, Sep. 8, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley’s back is against the wall.

No, no, no, it’s not really. He did interviews Tuesday with his back to the wall. They all do. Still, maybe there’s a hint of irony here.

The answers to what’s wrong with Iowa’s offense aren’t easy. The situations shift constantly. The smallest breakdowns can trash a play.

The Hawkeyes (2-0) won’t be able to fix everything this week against Northern Iowa (0-1). Obviously, No. 6 Wisconsin is coming to Kinnick Stadium in two weeks. That game will demand answers.

“I think he looks like he’s pressing to me a little bit,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday. “ ... I think he’s doing a little bit of that right now, trying to be too perfect, and then the points earlier we’re just not quite there in terms of sync. Just going to keep working at it.

“There’s no pixie dust or pill we give a guy or something like that. It’s just working through it and developing confidence.”

Iowa’s quarterback did close to a half-hour of interviews Tuesday answering questions about the performance of the passing game in the Hawkeyes’ 13-3 victory last week over Iowa State. Credit Stanley for enduring questions that weren’t all that easy. No, the questions couldn’t sack him, but a lot of eyes are on his answers.

The painful third-down miss to wide receiver Nick Easley in the second half has been the flash point for anyone wondering what’s going on with Iowa’s offense. Stanley had time. Easley was open. Stanley threw the ball at his feet.

That was one play where Stanley was clearly frustrated.

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“Just knew that we can make that play,” Stanley said. “That’s really it.”

What Stanley does with his feet during a throw are a little thing, but, especially on this play, they were everything.

On the pass behind tight end Noah Fant during the fourth-quarter, 83-yard drive that put the game away, Fant was rerouted by the defensive back, a seemingly little thing if you’re just watching the game.

Stanley threw behind Fant, who twisted to make a catch for an 11-yard gain. If Stanley put the ball in front of Fant, the play might’ve gone for 20-plus yards.

“He got thrown off his route a little bit and I wasn’t expecting that,” Stanley said. “I need to do a better job of adjusting in the middle of the play and make that throw.”

So many variables go into a passing attack — where the ball is thrown, how the receiver releases from the line of scrimmage, what the defense is trying to do, pass protection.

One way to cut through all of that is ...

“You’ve got to be able to make a play, that’s what the coaches are relying on us to do,” Stanley said. “Our teammates are relying on us, too. You have to adjust in the middle of the play and make a play.”

The “make a play thing” translates to this: You can’t account for every variable and you’re going to have to fight through for all of those pretty practice plays to translate into a game.

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“There’s no excuse,” said tight end T.J. Hockenson, who noted that plays and concepts have been muddled at times in the first two games. “We have to be able to bring practice to the game field. That’s something that can be frustrating at times, but at the same time, during the game, we’re very patient with our offense and we need to be.

“We’ve gotten it done, but that’s another thing we’re working on this week. There’s consistency and then coming out strong and finishing the entire 60 minutes, not just 15 minutes in the fourth quarter.”

Performance is the thing the players can control. You could make an argument that in weeks 1 and 2, Iowa’s offense was on the field to protect the defense.

Iowa State had a lot of the players back from a team that scored 41 points on the Hawkeyes last season. In week 1, Iowa was without starting offensive tackles Tristan Wirfs and Alaric Jackson and the starting middle linebacker was pulled after three series for performance.

What plays do you call? What personnel packages do you use?

With Fant and Hockenson, Iowa has a tight ends offense, so you’ll see a lot of heavy formations. With the variables that went into Iowa’s first two games — untested O-linemen, jump in competition vs. the Cyclones — offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz has run multiple tight ends and a fullback for 120 snaps out of the 137 the offense has had this season.

That’s 87.5 percent heavy formations. Last week against Iowa State, the Hawkeyes ran 12 (one back, two tight ends) and 22 (running back, fullback and two TEs) on 63 percent of their plays. In nearly 88 percent of its plays in the first two games, Iowa has used just two wide receivers.

That’s not a lot of opportunity. Then again, the passing game is going to have to show it can come through.

“I kind of see everything kind of collectively because when you’re throwing the ball well, it makes the run game a little bit easier and then vice versa,” Kirk Ferentz said. “It all kind of goes together. I don’t think there’s necessarily a pattern to it. Every team is a little bit different.”

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Consistency comes up a lot on this topic. Here’s another variable: Iowa’s receivers have to read a secondary and run a route off that.

“It’s a conceptual thing,” Hockenson said. “If one guy does something, it can open up the whole play. We’re trying to get that conceptual understanding throughout the whole offense and fix that.”

So, you see some light at the end of the tunnel.

“You’ve got to,” Hockenson said. “Close is a dangerous word. You want to think you’re close, but at the same time, it could be so far away. But I’d like to think so (on the “light at the end of the tunnel” thing and it being light and not something coming at them).”

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

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