Iowa Football

To get Noah Fant the ball, he has to be on the field

The way Iowa's offense has failed in the big moments the last three weeks, there aren't enough Fants

Iowa Hawkeyes tight end Noah Fant (87) is pulled down by Iowa State Cyclones linebacker Mike Rose (23) after pulling in a pass during the first 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 tight end Noah Fant (87) is pulled down by Iowa State Cyclones linebacker Mike Rose (23) after pulling in a pass during the first 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 — No clarity but there were some thoughts from Kirk Ferentz and the usage of preseason all-American tight end Noah Fant during the last few weeks.

Fant, Iowa’s second-leading receiver and team leader with six receiving touchdowns, saw only nine plays in the second half of Iowa’s loss last weekend to Northwestern, which clinched bowl eligibility and the Big Ten West Division title at Kinnick Stadium last weekend.

On Tuesday, the Iowa head coach called Fant a “specialist.” Maybe he means “touchdown specialist.” Honestly. Fant has 18 career touchdowns, including a team-high six TD receptions this season. If you’re going to call him a specialist, it’s probably that.

Ferentz called sophomore tight end T.J. Hockenson “a little bit more versatile as a tight end.”

Hockenson is Iowa’s leading receiver with 39 catches for 616 yards and four TDs. Fant is Iowa’s second-leading receiver with 35 catches for 453 yards and the six TDs. So, maybe it’s “pass catching specialist” for both tight ends.

Maybe this is enough info for you to infer that Hockenson is the better blocker and, thus, snap counts, especially with what Iowa (6-4, 3-4 Big Ten) wants to be on offense, will favor Hockenson.

When it came to specifically answering the question on Fant and his second-half snap count the last few weeks (he wasn’t on the field for key third and fourth downs at Purdue), the answer was, basically, Northwestern’s defense shut everything down.

“We’re going to be a better team if we can get him the ball,” Ferentz said.

Ferentz dismissed any idea of a character issue with Fant.

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The 6-foot-5, 241-pound Omaha, Neb., native is going to have the opportunity to make the leap to the NFL after this his junior season. As a sophomore in 2017, Fant led the nation for tight ends with 16.47 yards per catch. He tied for the nation’s lead among tight ends with 11 touchdown receptions last season.

Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller has Fant rated No. 11 on his list of the top 32 prospects. Only one skill position player, Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert, is listed ahead of Fant. This draft is light on skill position players, elevating the tight end position.

“Noah is a high-character guy. He’s been tremendous with us,” Ferentz said. “He’s a great kid. So there’s no issues there at all, and that’s hardly the deal. Beyond that, again, he’s a good player. We’re going to be better if we can find ways to get him the ball.”

Ferentz said that a few times Tuesday. So the question remains, why isn’t he on the field to get the ball?

Quarterback Nate Stanley explained generally how Iowa’s passing game works, how it’s reactive to what a defense does. And, of course, defenses can pour attention on a receiver and take him away.

“You can game plan all you want to isolate a certain person, but when the ball is snapped, whatever the defense does, we have to react to it. We have to play off what they do,” Stanley said. “They can take away a person. They also can do something to give someone else an opportunity to make a play.

“It’s not my place to question playing time, but you also have to do what the defense gives you.”

That played out in the finish of two Iowa series in the third quarter against Northwestern. On a third-and-11 from NU’s 20, Iowa went with a five-wide with Fant, Hockenson and no running backs. Stanley ended up targeting sophomore Max Cooper for a fade on along the sideline and it went incomplete.

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Cooper, who suffered a season-ending knee injury during the game, has three receptions this year. The defense starts pointing at Fant the second he walks into the huddle. Wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette told us earlier this year he’s heard defenses point out No. 87 (Fant).

“That play is a good example of little things here or there,” Stanley said. “The ball was a little behind. If I put it out another 2 or 3 yards, maybe he runs under it and catches a touchdown.”

Iowa finished its next series with perfect “Fant as decoy” usage. Fant drew three defenders and one hugged him like a long-lost cousin hugs a first-round NFL draft pick. This left wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette open for a 28-yard TD.

Here’s where “we’re going to be better if we can find ways to get him the ball” crashes through the guardrail and tumbles down the cliff.

Northwestern spent 7:01 on a 19-play drive that ended with a missed field goal, leaving Iowa with a 10-7 lead with 12:26 in the fourth quarter.

Iowa’s defense came through with a stop to preserve the lead. And then Iowa’s offense hacked up a three-and-out with Fant on the bench. The ball was at Iowa’s 20, so you knew it’d be conservative. After a 2-yard rush on first down, Stanley hit Hockenson on a screen for a loss of 3 yards and on third down it was a 6-yard checkdown to running back Toren Young.

Maybe this just offered cover for an offense that has fallen apart in the big moments the last three weeks, that hasn’t run the ball consistently and that lacks an identity.

Iowa’s offense is built to be reactive. With Northwestern’s constant blitzing, Stanley was forced to quick wide receiver screens.

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“The defense can move before the ball is snapped and the offense can’t, so ultimately the defense really determines what we do and how we do it,” Stanley said.

Yes, it’s Illinois (4-6, 2-5), but the Hawkeyes have lost three straight by a total of 12 points and the offense left fourth-quarter points on the table in all three. Iowa’s rushing offense is 11th in the Big Ten and tracking toward a finish in the bottom third of the league for a third consecutive season.

Last week, Iowa had four explosive passing plays — two to Hockenson and two to Smith-Marsette. Iowa had just one rushing play of 11 or more yards.

“When we don’t run the ball, it’s really tough,” Ferentz said. “When you’re struggling offensively, which we were the other night, it’s just — it’s a bad situation. They kind of feed off each other.”

Not sure two Noah Fants in the game at the same time is enough to move the needle here.

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

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