Eight weeks into the football season, Iowa has arrived at its one scheduled bye.
Ideally, Hawkeye offensive coordinator Greg Davis would be using these two weeks to refine the schemes. But after yet another dud of a performance, the question has to be: Is it time for him remodel?
Back-to-back-to-back home outputs of under 300 yards, all in losses — the latest coming in a touchdown-less 17-9 defeat to Wisconsin — pushes DVR Monday’s focus into three aspects of the Hawkeye offense.
One, the play-calling.
Two, the play-making.
Three, the quarterback.
Al three areas are underperforming. But before enjoying the World Series this week, let’s examine what can be done to fix things.
ESPN had one of its A-team broadcasting crews in Kinnick Stadium, so it was interesting to hear the comments of analysts Brian Griese and Todd McShay (a respected NFL Draft guru) throughout the broadcast.
One thing Griese said of Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst, who calls his team’s plays: “You’re going to get something you haven’t prepared for when you face a Paul Chryst offense.”
Later, Griese challenged Iowa’s $625,000-a-year offensive coordinator: “Greg Davis, you’ve got to come up with something. Come up with some rubs, some way to manufacture open receivers.”
The creativity gap was noticeable in this one. Wisconsin gained 23 yards on its third play on a jet sweep to freshman A.J. Taylor and found ways to get other new faces involved (Quintez Cephus on a 57-yard pass, Kyle Penniston on a 54-yarder).
Iowa attempted one gadget play, and it didn’t work.
But the biggest head-scratcher on Iowa’s offense was in play design.
Consistently, Iowa receivers ran routes short of the first-down marker on third down. This is a common complaint that spans all of football time, and Wisconsin’s stifling third-down defense (which ranks top-six nationally) deserves a lot of credit here.
But after the first-quarter break when Iowa has time to come up with a third-and-2 conversion, and intended receiver Riley McCarron’s quick route still stops a yard short of the first down? Doesn’t make sense.
“We’re just running what’s called,” McCarron said afterward. “We work our butts off, especially man-to-man. We just need to start executing.”
The Iowa coach points to key plays in a 17-9 loss to Wisconsin.
Or how about the third-and-6 from Wisconsin’s 24 — again, after a timeout to think about things — in the second quarter? Iowa’s top remaining athletic options — receivers Jerminic Smith, Jay Scheel and tight— end Noah Fant -- all ran pass routes into the end zone, and C.J. Beathard had to throw the ball away.
Another perplexing call came after Iowa got fresh life, down 14-6 after Wisconsin’s second missed field goal. On third-and-1, Iowa tried to run power back LeShun Daniels Jr. around the left side, directly into Wisconsin’s linebacker strength, when the up-the-middle game against a backup nose tackle had proved effective. The play was blown up for a 3-yard loss.
As is Iowa’s bye-week tradition, the offensive and defensive coordinators are made available to the media. That Wednesday news conference might be Davis’ most dreaded 30 minutes of the week.
The broken foot Matt VandeBerg suffered in a Sept. 26 practice continues to reveal itself as a major injury.
It says a lot that despite missing the last four games, VandeBerg is still Iowa’s second-leading receiver in catches (19) and yardage (284).
ESPN’s analysts took aim at Iowa’s lack of receiving personnel on several occasions. McShay observed early that he’d seen on film too many dropped balls and failures “to go up make catches on 50/50 balls … at an appropriate rate.”
He added, “A lot of it has to do with injuries at wide receiver and just a lack of playmakers.”
Ouch. And McShay’s observation painfully played out later.
Beathard went 0-for-2 on attempted long first-half throws; it could’ve been 2-for-2.
Scheel couldn’t haul in a deep pass that glanced off his fingertips. Smith didn’t battle Lubern Figaro for a pass down the left sideline.
“The ball’s not going to be perfect; you fight back for that ball,” Griese said. “You might catch it, but more than anything you might get a pass-interference penalty. That’s just too cavalier from Smith.”
We have heard a lot about the athleticism possessed by Smith and Scheel, but it hasn't translated into production. The pair combined for two catches for 12 yards in a big game Saturday.
The bye week might be time to give true freshman Devonte Young a more extended look, and maybe work Fant (6-foot-5, 220 pounds) into more receiving packages where he can worry more about pass-catching than pass-blocking.
One positive observation in this area: Iowa did make running back Akrum Wadley, who McShay called Iowa’s “most dynamic athlete,” a pass-game priority. He had a career-high seven receptions for 72 yards.
This game underscored that Beathard has been more of a game manager than gunslinger this season.
It might be time to try to turn loose the latter.
Beathard’s probably more banged-up than anyone on the outside realizes and, to his credit, he isn’t turning the ball over. But for Iowa to move the chains, its fifth-year senior needs to make more happen.
Iowa’s prettiest drive of the day saw Beathard complete five straight passes and execute a quarterback draw in a pseudo-hurry-up approach to gain 60 yards midway through the fourth quarter. But after reaching Wisconsin’s 25, the pace slowed, and Iowa’s drive stalled.
“It’s just interesting watching his body language,” McShay observed of Beathard. “He’s done a great job of not letting his teammates know how frustrated he is, but you know he is.”
No review on bad spot
It was a rough day for ball spots by Saturday’s officiating crew. Perhaps no mistake was more tone-changing than the one that happened on Iowa’s second drive in a 0-0 game.
Nearly everyone in the stadium, including Hawkeye players, thought Scheel achieved first-down yardage on a third-and-7 reception. He made a catch a few yards short of the sticks, then juked Figaro and lunged out of bounds while appearing to pass the line to gain (Wisconsin’s 48-yard line). But line judge Paul Engelberts instead marked the ball just inside the 49, a full yard shy of a first down.
ESPN replays confirmed my initial thought: Scheel didn’t step out of bounds, and in fact pushed off his right foot at Wisconsin’s 48 and appeared to get to at least the 47½ before the ball crossed out of bounds. So, in my review, I thought Scheel got shorted by 1½ yards. At worst, the spot should’ve been within inches of the marker, in which case Iowa might go for the first down on a Beathard sneak.
No question, in a fast-paced game with invisible boundaries, figuring out where a football should be marked is a difficult job. Many times it’s easier for us to see from the press box or with our HDTVs. But isn’t that the purpose of instant replay?
As annoying as it would be for constant reviews on ball placements, those involving first downs are worth the extra 60 to 90 seconds to get right.
And in this case, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz has culpability, too. Before any good replay angles were shown, he quickly sent Iowa’s punt team onto the field instead of either using his one coach’s challenge — or calling a first-half timeout — to force replay official Tom Herbert to scrutinize the spot.
There were seven replay reviews Saturday. This should’ve been an eighth. Wisconsin responded with a 56-yard drive that flipped field position and on the following possession punched in the slugfest game’s critical first score.
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.