Leistikow's DVR Monday: Is it time to feature Akrum Wadley?

Chad Leistikow

The routine of DVR Monday lately has felt like repeatedly watching the same bad action movie.

Iowa's villain (opponent) changes. But the outcome stays the same: Inept offense, a lack of big plays and consternation over how to fix it.

The Hawkeyes' 41-14 loss at Penn State raised questions about third-down efficiency and defensive personnel. Time is running out for solutions; the Hawkeyes are 5-4 with only 25 percent of their regular season to go, starting with Saturday's 7 p.m. sold-out home game against 21-point favorite Michigan.

Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard wasn't sacked in the first half against Penn State, but he was dropped four times and got more pressure in the second half as the Hawkeyes tried to rally in a 41-14 defeat.

It really is about third down

Iowa’s offense sunk to a new low at Beaver Stadium, gaining 234 yards — 81 of them coming on a garbage-time drive that made the final margin of defeat slightly less embarrassing.

As pointed out Sunday, the Hawkeyes’ current ranking of 118th out of 128 FBS teams would become an all-time low in the Kirk Ferentz era. (Iowa finished 114th out of 124 teams in the 4-8 campaign in 2012, Greg Davis’ first season as offensive coordinator.)

Ferentz reminded us afterward that “there is no overnight fix here,” and he’s realistic in terms of scheme or personnel overhauls.

But there is one execution thing Iowa can do to reverse these sagging numbers: Become more creative (or clutch) on third down.

I was pretty pointed in my postgame column Saturday about Iowa’s predictability. Those criticisms were emboldened after re-examining an early third-and-2 from Iowa’s own 49.

Iowa lined up with two tight ends and a fullback and Akrum Wadley at tailback, with one receiver (Jay Scheel) lined up outside. Penn State stacked nine players within four yards of the line of scrimmage, with a safety two yards behind them for run support.

Left defensive end Koa Farmer crashed inside, correctly guessing run. If the play called for Beathard to fake the handoff and roll right, he’d have had acres in front of him and Scheel in advantageous one-on-one coverage.

Instead, the handoff to Wadley put eight Iowa blockers against 10 Penn State defenders looking for a run. He gained one yard. The video showed that the issue wasn’t poor blocking; no Hawkeye badly whiffed on their opponent. It was just an example of a hard-to-overcome numbers disadvantage.

A screen shot of Iowa's third-and-2 play in the first quarter that was stuffed for a 1-yard Akrum Wadley gain. Notice the nine Penn State defenders within four yards of the line of scrimmage and another two steps behind.

After going 2-for-10 Saturday, the Hawkeyes rank 11th in the Big Ten Conference and 108th nationally with a 35.7 percent success rate on third down — 41 conversions on 115 attempts.

A year ago through nine games, Iowa was 44.1 percent on third down (57 of 129) with the same quarterback and same coordinator.

While that may not sound like a huge difference, those 16 extra conversions avoided 16 fourth downs and reduced punts. They also kept Iowa’s defense off the field and positively affected field position.

Almost hard to believe, Iowa went 0-for-4 on situations of third-and-2-or-less Saturday. In all four cases, quarterback C.J. Beathard said that the play calls came from coaches (i.e., Davis in the press box).

“Those are calls. You know, if we get a certain look, we’ll check out of them,” Beathard said. “All four of those are plays we should’ve converted on. It changes the game if you keep those drives going.”

He’s absolutely right on the problem. The solution is what’s missing.

Unfortunately, the challenge is steep Saturday at Kinnick Stadium: No. 2 Michigan owns the nation’s No. 1 defense on third down (22 of 116, 19.0 percent).

Wadley's turn?

One thing I wondered about after watching Saturday's replay: Is it time to make Wadley the featured back?

That’s not a knock against LeShun Daniels; he hasn’t done anything to lose his starting job. The 6-foot, 225-pound senior is averaging 5.0 yards per carry — a number that would be higher if two 75-yard TD runs weren’t called back on questionable penalties against North Dakota State and Rutgers.

To date, the coaching staff has almost equally distributed their touches. Daniels has 129 carries and seven receptions; Wadley had 99 carries and 23 receptions.

But Wadley continues to assert himself as the most athletic playmaker Iowa has. Penn State’s defense respected his ability to get loose in the passing game.

Wadley created the Hawkeyes’ first touchdown, a 12-yard second-quarter reception, because of his superb footwork. As Big Ten Network analyst Matt Millen put it: “Wadley gives them something they don’t have” otherwise.

No easy answers for Iowa's tough football season

Despite just 28 yards against Penn State on nine attempts, Wadley’s still averaging an impressive 6.7 per carry for the season and offers a game-changing threat. Plus, it’s late enough in the season that there shouldn’t be as much concern about overworking his (listed) 5-11, 191 frame.

One other added bonus: Wadley is Iowa’s best chance this year to become the program’s 1,000-yard rusher since 2011. He’s got 664 yards with three games (and maybe a bowl) to go.

Wadley’s season high is 15 carries at Purdue; in that game, he accounted for 176 yards on the ground. Maybe it’s worth trying to get those carries to 20-plus and see what happens.

It’s not impossible vs. mighty Michigan. Two weeks ago, Michigan State (0-6 in the Big Ten) rushed for 217 yards on 42 attempts in a 32-23 loss to the Wolverines.

Pass-protection woes

Down 24-7, Iowa faced third-and-10 on the third play of the second half. As Iowa lined up, Millen said, “(George) Kittle the tight end, could be the key."


Millen: "There! He’s wide open.”


Beathard didn't have time to throw the football as he was dropped for a 6-yard loss against a three-man rush, with right guard Sean Welsh looking around for someone to block.

It was a rough night for Brian Ferentz’s offensive line. Including four sacks for minus-22 yards, Iowa netted 30 rushing yards on 26 attempts.

Pass blocking hasn’t been very good since Stanford exposed weaknesses in Iowa’s protection in the Rose Bowl. In the last 10 games, Beathard has been sacked 31 times for minus-238 yards.

Iowa in 2016 ranks 12th in the Big Ten and 93rd nationally in rushing offense. It is 13th in the Big Ten and tied for 100th in FBS nationally in sacks allowed.

For a program that is built around its front five, those are alarming numbers.

Charting the runs

There was buzz before the game about Iowa putting Wadley and Daniels on the field as the same time. It actually did happen three times, with Wadley lining up as a slot receiver and Daniels at running back.

Twice, Wadley took handoffs on an end around. He gained zero (to the left) and three (right) yards.

The other time, Wadley was sent in motion as a decoy and Daniels gained two yards on a straight-ahead run.

Three plays, five yards. Let’s call this a work in progress.

Charting Iowa’s 22 rushing plays for 52 yards (does not include sacks): six carries, 10 yards to the left; 10 carries, 14 yards up the middle; six carries, 28 yards to the right.

Defensive substitutions

With banged-up Nathan Bazata’s 22-game starting streak coming to an end, true freshman Cedrick Lattimore was the beneficiary of extra playing time at defensive tackle. How did he do?

Lattimore played two series — one in the second quarter, one in the fourth — for a total of 16 snaps. The Detroit native didn’t have much success, but then again, neither did Bazata on his 17 snaps in relief. The difference between the two was negligible Saturday, with seniors Jaleel Johnson and Faith Ekakitie getting starter’s reps.

Lattimore and redshirt freshman Brady Reiff (two snaps) were the only second-teamers that got to play on Penn State’s final, inconsequential nine-play drive with the score out of reach.

It would’ve been nice to see younger linebackers Jack Hockaday and Amani Jones or safety Amani Hooker get some experience. Both position groups struggled mightily as Iowa allowed 599 yards against Penn State. Yet, Josey Jewell, Bo Bower, Ben Niemann, Miles Taylor and Brandon Snyder were kept on the field until the bitter end.

The lack of substitutions seemed to defy what defensive coordinator Phil Parker had said 10 days earlier, when he praised the progression of Hooker, saying the true freshman had “made some jumps” in practice. He added, “I'm really looking forward to giving him opportunities. … I think he'll eventually take over at some point in time.”

There would’ve been no better low-pressure time than down by 27 points with a few minutes to go.

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.