Hawkeyes are seething at 0-2 start, with an offense looking to restore balance
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Hindsight is 20/20, as they say, but one thing that’s clear from watching the Iowa football team in 2020 is that 20 points won’t cut it.
That is what the Hawkeyes have been held to, or held themselves to, in two losses to open a season that already has many fans turning their attention to basketball.
In Week 1, Iowa handed the ball off 33 times for an impressive 195 yards, but lost two costly fumbles in the process and couldn’t hold off Purdue, 24-20.
Was Week 2 an overreaction? Maybe. But the result was the same after the Hawkeyes dialed up 50 pass plays against Northwestern, saw three of them intercepted, and fell 21-20. Iowa gave its running backs only 18 carries in that one, for 57 yards.
The Hawkeyes will be looking for a happy medium between those two extremes when Michigan State (1-1) enters Kinnick Stadium for an 11 a.m. kickoff Saturday on ESPN. The Spartans are dealing with their own identity crisis after sloppily losing Mel Tucker’s debut game as head coach to Rutgers and following that up with a stirring win at rival Michigan.
Two Tylers spoke to Iowa reporters this week, and they were unanimous in two opinions: Being 0-2 does not sit well with the Hawkeye players; and their preference is to run the football down someone’s throat in order to get that taste out of their mouths.
“Once you get that run game going, and if the defense can’t stop it, they’ve got to get more guys in the box. So that definitely helps the team all the way around,” sophomore center Tyler Linderbaum said, “if we do our jobs up front and set the tempo and get some yards right away.”
Sophomore running back Tyler Goodson, not surprisingly, hinted that he was ready to accept a heavier workload in order to make this happen. His 29 carries have netted 120 yards and a touchdown this season.
“I could take as many carries as they give me. If they want me to go out and carry the ball 25 times, 30 times, I’ll do it,” Goodson said.
“We need to be able to run the ball successfully, at a good pace and a constant rate.”
The problem is, as Goodson pointed out, Michigan State is a “heavy box team” with a single safety playing deep. The Spartans are running a 4-2-5 scheme at the direction of Tucker, who has 10 years of experience as a defensive coordinator in the NFL.
The question was whether he would have the personnel in Year 1 for the scheme to shine. Early results have been promising.
Rutgers won primarily because the Spartans committed seven turnovers. The Scarlet Knights gained only 276 yards in a 38-27 win.
Michigan piled up 452 yards, but timely Spartan stops forced eight punts in a 27-24 shocker. Tucker watched his rotation of four defensive tackles — Naquan Jones, Jacob Slade, Dashaun Mallory and freshman Jalen Hunt — hold up well during 86 plays and nearly 34 minutes of possession time by the Wolverines.
That will be the challenge facing Linderbaum and guards Cole Banwart and Kody Ince.
“They’re going to come off the ball,” Linderbaum said. “We’re just going to have to be ready to go.”
If Iowa’s offensive line can move the Spartans’ first level of defense, Goodson said he’s working on reading opposing linebackers better as the next step in his evolution as a breakaway running back. His ability to get into and through the second level is what could really make Iowa’s running game special.
And that may mean more of Goodson in the Wildcat formation, where he can survey the field before taking a direct snap. The Hawkeyes used that only once against Northwestern, and Goodson saw room up the middle, picking up 7 yards behind Linderbaum. He also has the freedom to run a read-option play out of that formation, again depending on what he notices from the linebackers.
Any impact from the Hawkeye rushing game will certainly help sophomore quarterback Spencer Petras, who looked increasingly flustered by the Northwestern defense as the game wore on. His first two college starts have been spotty, but coach Kirk Ferentz said there is no doubt that Petras is the right guy to run his offense. Or let the offense run, if that’s what it takes.
Glen Mason, the former Minnesota coach who now works as an analyst on the Big Ten Network, said he didn’t think Iowa would drop its opening two contests this season. But he also said that doesn’t mean good things aren’t in store for the Hawkeyes.
Mason should know. He faced Ferentz-coached Hawkeye teams eight times, always late in the season. He won the meetings in Ferentz’s first two seasons, then lost five of the next six.
“There’s a number of times you’ve seen Iowa struggle or lose early, and by the end of the year, they’re a good football team,” Mason said.
“They can’t turn the ball over the way they’re doing. And I’m really surprised that they threw 50 passes in a game. If they’re throwing 50 passes, Kirk can’t do what he’d really like to do.”
Which is the same thing Linderbaum and Goodson would like to do.
MICHIGAN STATE (1-1) at IOWA (0-2)
When: 11 a.m. Saturday
Where: Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City
TV: ESPN (Bob Wischusen, Dan Orlovsky, Paul Carcaterra)
Line: Hawkeyes by 6.5
Weather: 64 degrees and sunny; winds from south-southwest at 14 mph
Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.