Mental miscues and penalties were certainly big factors in Iowa’s second straight home loss as a double-digit favorite. This 38-31 setback to Northwestern, though, was more damaging to the Hawkeyes’ season than the 23-21 stunner against FCS No. 1 North Dakota State because of its Big Ten Conference implications.
This week’s DVR Monday attempts to dig deeper into the issues — especially on offense — with the goal of determining if those are the primary reasons the preseason No. 15 Hawkeyes are off to a 3-2 start — and whether there’s hope for a turnaround.
What the refs got right
This week’s third section probably has the most analytical teeth, but I felt it was important first to examine some penalty flags (or lack thereof) that initially seemed questionable from referee Jerry McGinn’s crew. (Iowa was assessed six penalties for 70 yards and had two more flags declined; Northwestern had one penalty — a false start, for five yards.)
First, the two calls officials got right:
1) At first, I thought Northwestern’s Joseph Jones clearly interfered with Jay Scheel on a C.J. Beathard pass as Iowa was trying to pad a 21-17 lead late in the first half. Jones never turned around, and subsequently ran into Scheel at about the same time the ball arrived on the scene. An easy flag, right? Not so, in college — where, without contact, face-guarding is not a penalty. Jones might have arrived a nanosecond early, but it was borderline. Probably a good no-call, similar to the one Iowa benefited from with Josey Jewell in coverage against North Dakota State.
2) On the flip side, Iowa’s Brandon Snyder was flagged for 15 yards for a similar-looking play that riled up Hawkeye fans. But on review, Snyder clearly contacted Ben Skowronek before the pass arrived, thus assisting a Wildcat drive that would tie the score at 24-24. Good call. A nanosecond can make a big difference.
Three calls they missed
A huge play in this game was Clayton Thorson’s 3-yard scramble on a gutsy fourth-and-1 attempt from Northwestern’s own 48 early in the third quarter. Thorson was quickly pressured by Jaleel Johnson, who was clearly held by Wildcat center Brad North. Does Johnson get there without the hold? Maybe not. But it should’ve been called; and Northwestern tied the score, 24-24, on that drive. (By the way, the last opponent's offensive holding call against Iowa? In the second quarter of Week 2, by Iowa State.)
In the third quarter, officials initially threw a flag against Northwestern for offensive pass interference on what looked like a classic pick play. But they picked up the flag, despite the plea from Iowa assistant Seth Wallace. ESPN’s announcing crew said it looked like the Wildcat receivers ran into each other, but on replay it looked like Ben Niemann was contacted and bumped off course. That should’ve been a 15-yard flag, first-and-25; instead, it was a 6-yard reception for Austin Carr and second-and-4. On the next play, Justin Jackson ran 58 yards for a go-ahead touchdown.
The last one that triggered the most fan angst was an uncalled face-mask penalty with Iowa driving at the end of the third quarter. It’s hard to definitively tell if Ifeadi Odenigbo grabbed Beathard’s helmet on a game-changing sack — his dark purple glove blends in with the black Hawkeye helmet. If he did grab it (which it appeared on my 55-inch HDTV he did), Odenigbo quickly slid the hand to Beathard’s shoulder and pulled him down. Beathard said afterward he thought he was face-masked; the official obviously didn’t see enough to throw the flag. My theory: If Beathard had put up any kind of demonstrative plea for a flag, he might have sold the 15-yarder. Instead, Iowa punted.
A concerning revelation
With the officiating stuff as a backdrop, penalties are clearly a factor in Iowa’s inconsistency. When starting left guard Boone Myers grabs a face mask for a 15-yard penalty and tight end George Kittle follows with a false start — taking Iowa from second-and-1 to second-and-21 — that’s the kind of stuff that drives the head coach nuts.
“Those penalties,” Ferentz said, “the little things that look almost somewhat innocuous, the impact they have or can have, they're really big.”
For sure. But are they the main reason Iowa has been outgained by 115 yards this season against an extremely manageable schedule? (Iowa’s FBS opponents to date have a combined 5-15 record.)
But the biggest factor I saw against Northwestern was – on both sides of the ball — an Iowa inability to overcome mistakes.
More Coverage from Saturday's game:
- McCarron moves in for VandeBerg despite Iowa’s pass game problems
- Iowa takeaways: The run defense still stinks
- Beathard must lead to get Hawkeyes back on track
The most alarming thing Saturday was that only five of Iowa’s 68 scrimmage plays count as “explosive” (pass of 16-plus yards, rushes of 12-plus), with Beathard’s 12-yard scramble the longest running play out of 41. Iowa has only one running play in the last three games over 18 yards.
Meanwhile, Iowa had nine negative-yardage offensive plays Saturday plus a turnover a collective failure in blocking and getting receivers open against a Northwestern defense that allowed 556 yards to Nebraska. So it’s not just the penalties that are forcing the Hawkeye offense into difficult down-and-distance situations.
And when the defense isn’t forcing the action, either — only three of Northwestern’s 72 plays went for either negative yardage or a turnover — that makes for long, sustained opponent drives.
Yes, Iowa has to clean up the penalties.
But the Northwestern replay provides a concerning confirmation: It’s going to take almost perfect discipline for Iowa going forward to win games. Because neither side of the ball has shown in the last three weeks that it can deliver impact plays.
Play-calling trends, failures
My goal/hope with DVR Monday is to chart something different each week. After giving up six sacks to a team that had six all season coming in, I thought I’d look at Beathard’s usage and effectiveness in the passing game — on quick throws, longer-developing throws and out of a shotgun formation — and see if there’s something to learn going forward.
But before I get there, a little quiz:
Between the time Iowa took a 24-17 lead and trailed 38-24, how many rushing calls were made?
Answer: Zero. And that's borderline unacceptable.
Iowa went three-and-out twice in a row, with Beathard getting sacked twice and throwing 3-for-4 for 16 yards, while Northwestern scored 21 straight points.
The Hawkeyes had 34 passing calls and 34 rushing calls Saturday. But on seven pass calls, the ball never left Beathard’s hand. A breakdown of the passing calls:
Under center, quick dropback (10 times): 8-for-10, 52 yards, no sacks.
Beathard’s only two misses in these situations were a batted ball and a drop by Kittle.
Under center, 5-step drop (four times): 2-for-3, 66 yards, one sack (for -8).
Beathard hit two explosive plays — 20 yards to Riley McCarron, 46 to Jerminic Smith — off play-action passes.
Shotgun snap (20 times): 9-for-14 passing, 86 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT; five sacks and one scramble for -22 net yards.
Easily Beathard’s most ineffective and most punishing formation. Even on some completions, including a 22-yarder to Jay Scheel, Beathard got hit hard. In 20 shotgun snaps overall, Iowa netted only 64 yards.
Bottom line: Beathard is more efficient and less prone to injury when he takes snaps under center, underscoring the importance of an effective run game.
Seniors McCarron and Desmond King were Iowa’s two best players Saturday, primarily because of their lifts in the return game. But they both had help.
Give credit to Jake Gervase for a pancake block on King’s 32-yard punt return that set up the Hawkeyes’ first touchdown. Freshman receiver Devonte Young had his own impressive block on another King 32-yarder in the second quarter.
And on McCarron’s 54-yard kick return, fullback Drake Kulick paved the way with a punishing block.
McCarron (career highs of eight catches, 78 yards) also more than capably filled in for injured receiver Matt VandeBerg.
"It's been fun to watch Riley," Ferentz said Sunday on the UI's website. "He's done a really good job throughout every phase of his career. ... He's a really good football player for us. We'll just have to be careful not to wear him out."
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.