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A crucial cut-blocking flag leaves the Hawkeyes coach bewildered

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I entered Week 4 of DVR Monday attempting to get a firmer grasp on Iowa’s offensive struggles.

After scoring points on just two of 11 possessions during Saturday’s 14-7 win at Rutgers — not exactly a defensive juggernaut — questions were being asked by the fan base about C.J. Beathard’s sharpness and Greg Davis’ play-calling.

Below were my conclusions on that topic after the re-watch, along with charting offensive snap counts and impressive performances by Iowa’s top defensive stars.

Blame mistakes, not Davis

The knee-jerk reaction when Iowa’s offense sputters is to blame Davis. The fifth-year offensive coordinator, though, shouldn’t be solely on the hook for this one.

The biggest factor for Iowa in Piscataway, N.J., was self-inflicted damage, which was far more costly than the seven penalty flags for 57 yards would indicate.

Here were some of the biggies that caused drives to sputter and field position to change:

-- How does an illegal-formation penalty on the punt team affect the offense? Instead of Ron Coluzzi’s first punt going for 48 yards to Rutgers’ 14, the follow-up kick gave Rutgers the ball at the 26. Those 12 yards eventually pushed Iowa’s next drive back to starting at its own 8-yard line.

-- That drive included 20 yards of unforced offensive penalties — a false start by Peter Pekar and a coach’s sideline interference. So despite a 10-yard LeShun Daniels Jr. run to start the drive and three follow-up Beathard completions for 26 yards, Iowa punted from its own 24. (If you’ve done the math, we’re at 32 yards of unnecessarily lost field position and a third-and-25.)

“When you create those … tough-to-make situations, it puts a lot more pressure on your team,” coach Kirk Ferentz said. “It’s like baseball. It’s a lot more fun to be (a batter) up there at 3-0, or being the pitcher in an 0-2 count.”

-- On the next drive, Iowa reached Rutgers’ 11-yard line. On second-and-6, Daniels took a handoff. The hole opening to his right screamed touchdown. But Beathard stepped on Daniels’ foot as he delivered the ball — another unnecessary miscue — and caused a 2-yard loss and third-and-8. Two plays later, Beathard overthrew Jerminic Smith on fourth down.

--You’ve heard Ferentz discuss the illegal block whistled on Ike Boettger to wipe out Daniels’ 75-yard touchdown run to start the second half. That one’s not on the Hawkeyes. But a play later that drive sidetracked them again. On second-and-2 from Rutgers’ 31, Akrum Wadley ran left, but bounced it outside instead of cutting upfield. Holding was called on left tackle Cole Croston. Iowa later punted.

“It was the back not staying with the play — kind of bounced it out and left the lineman in a bad spot,” Ferentz said, providing a snapshot of frustration of the day. “It’s a team thing. Everybody’s got to understand why certain things are important and why you’ve got to stay with your keys.”

Iowa players say these types of mistakes can be fixed. They're right. Combine the stuff that's happening above, and that inconsistency has led to (as Hawkeye Nation's Jon Miller pointed out Sunday) Iowa running fewer offensive plays than any FBS team that's played four games.

So before blaming Davis, let’s see if the players can eliminate mental mistakes as they did when humming against Miami of Ohio (45 points) and Iowa State (42).

“We came out the first two weeks of the season and played hard, played together,” Beathard said. “These last couple weeks here, we haven’t played as well as we’ve needed to play, especially offensively. I think it’s a matter of time before we pick that up and put it together.”

Speaking of the quarterback

Staying on the side-effects-of-penalties theme: The play after Croston’s holding penalty, Beathard just barely overthrew Daniels on a wheel route. Then on third-and-12, Beathard scrambled and took an unintentional helmet-to-helmet hit from Rutgers’ Deonte Roberts.

Beathard was briefly evaluated on the sideline afterward and returned, but he wasn’t the same. He dropped back to pass five times the rest of the game (on five Hawkeye drives), and the ball left his hand twice: a negative-yardage completion to Matt VandeBerg and a pass that was deflected. He took two sacks and scrambled once for a short gain. Those five passing calls netted minus-14 yards.

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'Outlaw' does it again

Another week, another touchdown-saving individual performance by Josey Jewell — even though the official play-by-play didn’t give him proper credit.

Not long after sideline reporter Rocky Boiman said Iowa’s players lacked urgency, “The Outlaw” took matters into his own hands. A Jewell-led goal-line stand late in the second quarter gave the Hawkeyes a spark.

On first-and-goal from the Iowa 3 in a scoreless game, Jewell stacked up "Wildcat" quarterback Tyler Odin for a 1-yard gain, though the stat sheet listed Anthony Nelson and Jaleel Johnson as making the stop.

After he and Brandon Snyder met Odin again for no gain, Jewell’s most impressive play came on third-and-goal from the 2. Regular quarterback Chris Laviano ran right, and it became a one-on-one battle. Jewell planted his legs into the ground like he was about to do a squat lift in Chris Doyle’s weight room, and he simply overpowered Laviano without budging an inch and threw him down for a 1-yard loss.

The Outlaw was there again on fourth down, although Desmond King should get partial credit for this one (and he didn’t). Laviano’s option run to the left side left King two options: take the quarterback or the pitch man. King smartly went for Laviano and hit him before he could pitch to Jawuan Harris. As Laviano lunged forward, Jewell finished him off just short of the goal line.

Two DVR Mondays ago, I praised Jewell for an effort play that saved a would-be Allen Lazard touchdown catch. The Hawkeyes held Iowa State to a field goal on that drive, and on this one, Rutgers not only got zero points, but it also turned into a 99-yard scoring drive the other way for Iowa's offense.

Afterward, Jewell said about what you would expect from a team captain: “Really good team defense when we were backed up."

Praise for Desmond

Speaking of Iowa stars, did King have his best game as a Hawkeye? Pro Football Focus certainly thought so, noting he recorded “the highest coverage grade of his career in (the) win over Rutgers, allowing just a single catch for 2 yards.”

King also made the tackle on a hustle play that wound up causing a season-ending ankle injury to Rutgers star Janarion Grant and had a 45-yard kickoff return to help flip field position in the fourth quarter.

Afterward, Ferentz reiterated something he often states: “It’s really unreasonable to think we’re going to have a good football team if our best guys don’t play their best.”

Jewell and King are certainly doing that.

Offensive snap counts

Last week, I charted the defense to track fatigue. This week, I took a closer look at who’s getting the biggest workload on offense.

Taking the five starting linemen and Beathard out of the equation (they obviously took all 61 offensive snaps), here were the results:

-- George Kittle (two catches, 56 yards) played all 61 snaps, too, at tight end. Another veteran playing his best football. Peter Pekar had no targets on 19 snaps.

-- Iowa’s unofficial leader in wide-receiver playing time was Riley McCarron, but he was primarily a blocker with one target on 36 snaps. Smith had six targets on 35 snaps; VandeBerg had seven targets on 32; and Jay Scheel wasn’t targeted in 26 snaps. The Hawkeyes still aren’t going beyond a four-man rotation there.

-- Daniels and Wadley shared the running-back workload pretty evenly at Rutgers. Daniels took 35 snaps, Wadley 26. Each got 14 touches. I said Iowa would win if Wadley got 15 (after he got just five against North Dakota State).

Close enough.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.

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