Analysis: Iowa football's offense takes too long to hit its stride in loss to Penn State

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The first time Iowa tried to get the ball to Akrum Wadley in space Saturday, the tailback was swallowed up for a safety on an ill-advised pitch play.

The Hawkeye star had zero yards rushing at halftime.

It was an ugly half of football for the Iowa offense that produced only 54 yards and one touchdown set up more by the defense.

Iowa running back Akrum Wadley runs down field during the Hawkeyes' game against No. 4 Penn State at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017.

Give the Hawkeyes credit for eventually opening things up, for getting playmakers involved, for isolating Wadley on a 70-yard pass play and for creating a big hole for him on a 35-yard rushing touchdown. For pushing No. 4 Penn State to the final play of the game in an unexpectedly compelling 21-19 loss at Kinnick Stadium.

But you were left wondering: What if the gameplan hadn’t been so bland at the outset? What if tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson had drawn more targets, and Wadley hadn’t been reduced to a mere pedestrian tailback?

With senior tailback James Butler sidelined by an elbow injury, Wadley became a one-man show. Butler allows Iowa to shift Wadley into the slot at times, to seek out mismatches, to keep him fresh. Iowa’s coaches clearly didn’t trust freshmen Toren Young or Ivory Kelly-Martin enough to fill Butler’s role.

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Wadley ended up carrying 19 times for 80 yards, but he was the only tailback to do so. Iowa’s offense was stripped of some of its usual variety for that reason alone. He also was needed to help pick up the Nittany Lions' myriad blitzes.

"I think we got ahead of ourselves a little bit. I think we were playing fast, faster than we should have, and we didn't have really good field position in the first half, either," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said.

The Hawkeyes somehow led 7-5 at halftime, thanks to a spirited defensive performance. Josey Jewell’s interception late in the half brought the ball to the Penn State 21-yard line.

On the next play, Iowa sophomore quarterback Nate Stanley dropped back and fired a perfect pass to wide receiver Nick Easley in the end zone. That beautiful play was a stark contrast to all that had preceded it and seemed to give Iowa new life heading into the locker room, knowing the Hawkeyes would get the ball first in the second half.

When they did, it was another troubling three-and-out that left the home fans murmuring, wondering if Iowa would ever figure things out.

In the fourth quarter, the Hawkeyes did.

Trailing 15-7, Stanley caught Penn State blitzing, found Wadley in isolation and dropped a short pass into his hands. Wadley did the rest, roaming 70 yards through the Penn State defense for a touchdown that brought the score to 15-13 in favor of the Nittany Lions.

Wadley was also Iowa's leading receiver, with four catches for 75 yards.

"His playmaking ability, you want to get the ball into his hands as much as possible," Stanley said of Wadley.

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By the time Iowa got the ball back — after Anthony Nelson blocked a Penn State field-goal attempt — only 2 minutes, 42 seconds remained. What followed was a drive that showed how much promise there is in this Iowa offense, when it decides to spread the ball around.

First, Fant was running open down the seam and forced a Penn State defender to interfere. That gave the Hawkeyes 15 vital yards.

Next, freshman wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette came open on a crossing route and completed a tough 8-yard gain. Then, senior wide receiver Matt VandeBerg leaped to snare a pass along his sideline, picking up 22 yards. All three of those players had caught only one pass prior to the drive.

That set up Wadley’s 35-yard scoring burst through the left side of the line and a 19-15 Iowa lead. The drive took exactly 1 minute and consumed 80 yards.

"Being able to run the ball definitely helped with having them cover a little bit more instead of blitz us," Stanley said after completing 13 of 22 passes for 191 yards, 106 of them in the final quarter. 

It was a long time coming against the fastest, most physical defense Iowa has faced this season, but it was nearly enough to pull off a stunning upset.

It was just that Penn State’s offense, featuring the magnificent Saquon Barkley, was one play better.

There’s a lesson for the Hawkeyes in the loss: Keep doing what worked in the fourth quarter. That offense is good enough to beat any team in the country.

"We wanted to try to get the offense going a little bit quicker, but Penn State's defense is super aggressive," Stanley said. "They did things, a couple of different tweaks that we weren't expecting."