IOWA CITY — There are two ends of the spectrum here.
First, the Hawkeyes (4-2, 1-2 Big Ten) have spun their wheels on offense in back-to-back weeks against ranked teams. Maybe there’s a mammoth breakthrough at some point, but, realistically, improvement likely will come against lesser opponents.
Theoretically, Purdue (2-4, 1-2) should be that next weekend at Kinnick Stadium. After Saturday night’s 17-12 loss to No. 10 Penn State, when the No. 17 Hawkeyes struggled to find any vein of consistency on offense, everything is in “theory.”
Iowa wants to run clock, it wants to run the ball, but in the last two weeks, it’s thrown 85 passes (43 vs. Penn State and 42 against Michigan two weeks ago). You have to go back to the first two games of 2014 to find back-to-back games where Iowa threw 40 or more passes.
By the way, the Hawkeyes won both of those ’14 games, but they were an 8-point win over Northern Iowa and a 17-13 escape at Kinnick against Ball State.
“I’m not too upset about that,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “We just have to do it a little better.”
The offensive line’s performance in the last two weeks has held the Hawkeyes back.
Against Michigan, eight sacks crumpled drives. Against Penn State, the Hawkeyes averaged just 2.3 yards on 30 carries, with drive-killing errors up and down the drive chart.
Offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs was asked in the postgame where the running game is right now.
“I don’t know,” he said. “We have a couple good runs and then we kind off stall out. Something would happen and then bad things would snowball.”
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The Hawkeyes rotated six offensive lines in their opening victory over Miami (Ohio). It looked like they were building depth during their 4-0 start. In the last two games, injuries have shown up. Walk-on guard Kyler Schott won a spot and then suffered a foot injury with no word on his return. Junior Cole Banwart, who started seven games last year, suffered an injury in practice this week and is out for the season.
Against the Nittany Lions, the Hawkeyes started their fifth different O-line combo in six games. Sophomore Mark Kallenberger, who usually plays tackle, got his first career start at guard.
Iowa cut down on the sacks, going from eight vs. Michigan to two this week, but the hits piled up on quarterback Nate Stanley, who completed 25 of 43 for 286 yards, a TD and an interception.
“It’s not going to be yelling just for yelling,” Kallenberger said. “We’re going to be taught what to do better. The coaches know we can be better, and it’s time for us to really step up.”
Penn State’s defensive line was murderous. The group combined for 2.0 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss.
“You just keep pounding away,” running back Toren Young said. “Every week isn’t going to be a 300-yard rushing game. It’s tough, but that’s just the beauty of the beast. We play tough defenses in the Big Ten. It’s tough, physical football and some days are just going to be like that. You keep pounding, you keep working.”
Turnovers have bitten Iowa the last two weeks. At Michigan, it was a minus-3 turnover margin. On Saturday night, it was minus-2. Iowa hadn’t had back-to-back games of minus turnovers since going minus-1 against Minnesota (loss) and Northwestern (win) in 2017.
With about five minutes left in the third quarter, the game-definer happened.
Iowa had first down at its 22. Running back Tyler Goodson took a handoff. Center Tyler Linderbaum went one way. Kallenberger followed. The line parted and defensive tackle P.J. Mustipher ran through untouched, caused a fumble and PSU recovered. This led to a 33-yard field goal and a 10-6 lead with 2:08 left in the third.
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“We let a guy come back in the backfield that should have been accounted for,” Ferentz said. “It was a bust out on our end mentally. It involved the player who hadn’t been playing a lot, had a certain position, I believe. Things like that are going to happen. It’s really unfortunate it happened when it did.”
So, now the other end of the spectrum.
“You didn’t lose at life, did you?” wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette said. “So, you’re going to keep your head up and keep moving forward.”
If you look at what’s immediately in front of the Hawkeyes, you’re going to be skeptical and probably cynical. It’s warranted.
Iowa has dropped two straight to Purdue. After Purdue, it’s Northwestern and Iowa has lost three consecutive to the Wildcats. And then it’s at Wisconsin, which has won three straight vs. Iowa and six of the last seven. It’s Minnesota after that and the Gophers are undefeated.
“You tell the guys, listen, there are going to be bumps on the road,” said Smith-Marsette, who caught five passes for 72 yards. “You’re going to take some losses in life, you learn from them and then you go harder each time you go back out there.”
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