Leistikow: The numbers that help explain Iowa's 8-4 season
Week-to-week, this Iowa football season was a tough one to figure out.
A week after the offense dismantled Iowa State, it was anemic in a jarring loss to FCS North Dakota State.
A week after the defense was shredded by Penn State, it was dominant in a stunning win against Michigan.
When it all shook out, it was 8-4 and a top-25 ranking entering a bowl game in a matchup to be determined Sunday.
How did Iowa get here? I identified five interesting numbers that help (try to) explain the unexplainable regular-season season that was.
Number of Iowa’s lost fumbles in 2016, tied with Nevada for the fewest in FBS.
That’s one every six games. And it helped contribute to an overall turnover margin of plus-seven that ranked 19th nationally. That’s an important path to eight wins when the offense is struggling for yards (more on that later).
Riley McCarron (at Minnesota) and Akrum Wadley (at Illinois) were the only culprits that lost one of the Hawkeyes’ 12 fumbles.
But Iowa made its own luck, too. Of the 26 fumbles that hit the ground this season, a Hawkeye recovered on 19 occasions (73 percent of the time). That’s a hustle stat.
If the Hawkeyes get through the bowl game unscathed in this department, it’ll be a new school record – besting the three lost fumbles in 2012.
Desmond King and Ron Coluzzi couldn’t be further apart athletically. One is a do-it-all, first-round NFL Draft prospect; the other tripped over his own feet and somersaulted for a 5-yard loss on the only carry of his Iowa career.
But that pair helped contribute to a wonderful statistic that made 8-4 possible. Iowa gained 300 more punt-return yards than its opponents – 393 to 93.
Remember this number as Iowa looks to replace both guys next year. Plus-300 on punt returns is a big deal when your offense is outgained for the season by 235 yards.
King’s presence as the primary punt returner helped stifle opponent’s net-punting average to 31.7 yards.
Led by Coluzzi’s directional and booming kicks, only 10 of Iowa’s 64 punts were returned at all, and 22 were downed inside the 20. The Hawkeyes’ net punting rose from 95th a year ago in FBS to 46th (38.4 yards per kick).
Nos. 117 and 119
Those are the respective rankings of Iowa’s third-down offense and total offense out of 128 FBS teams.
Iowa converted just 32.6 percent of its 157 third-down chances, and even with 400-plus yards vs. Nebraska ended up averaging just 333.2 yards a game – one of the lowest marks of the Kirk Ferentz era, and not what was expected behind a returning all-Big Ten quarterback.
Naturally, the two categories go hand-in-hand.
When third downs aren’t converted, chains aren’t moving. It all adds up to the inconsistency we saw for 12 weeks.
For starters, it was a few fourth-quarter misfires on third down that directly cost Iowa the North Dakota State game.
What’s behind those issues – including an under-performing receiver group and stale offensive schemes – are fair game for offseason scrutiny.
This was an important one: Iowa scored touchdowns on that percentage of red-zone trips – 27 of 38.
Meanwhile, opponents scored TDs on just 50 percent of such trips – 17 of 34.
In other words, Iowa traded nearly equal red-zone opportunities with its opponents, yet came away with 10 more touchdowns. More points are good.
Three things deserve credit for this key stat.
One, Iowa’s reliance on a power running game paid off near the goal line. Seven of LeShun Daniels Jr.’s 10 rushing TDs ranged from 1 to 4 yards.
Two, Iowa’s defense tightened up inside the 20. The 10 rushing TDs allowed ranked fourth in the Big Ten Conference behind stingy outfits Ohio State (5), Michigan (7) and Wisconsin (7).
Three, Ferentz’s aggressiveness on fourth down proved successful (11 of 16 tries were converted). None was more prominent than Beathard's 3-yard TD pass to Wadley to put six points on the board against Michigan instead of three just before halftime.
Iowa won, you may remember, 14-13.
21-6 (but 156.2)
A quarterback's record can be misleading, or it can tell the whole story. It’s probably somewhere in between for Beathard’s 21 wins in 27 starts as a Hawkeye.
The win total trails only Chuck Long (34) and Ricky Stanzi (26) in Hawkeye history and matches Matt Rodgers and Drew Tate for No. 3 all-time.
Yet Beathard didn’t exactly carry the Hawkeyes with his arm or legs this year. Not since 1982 have the Hawkeyes totaled fewer than 2,000 passing yards in a season, and Iowa’s at 1,936 entering the bowl game.
Beathard would need to top his season average of 156.2 yards a game to help 2016 Iowa avoid being tagged as the worst passing offense of the Ferentz era (run-heavy 2003 owns the low mark of 2,095 yards).
The Hawkeyes didn’t throw much (Beathard averaged 17 attempts during the season-ending three-game win streak). And when they did, the payoff was minimal. Iowa’s 11.5 yards per completion rank 96th in FBS, and Beathard was sacked 29 times (once per 9.6 attempts).
But Beathard's a proven winner. If he could lead Iowa to a bowl victory, that’d mark 21 team victories in back-to-back seasons – which would tie the best-ever two-year total in Hawkeye history (11-2 in 2002, 10-3 2003).
Ferentz would gladly take Beathard’s .778 winning percentage (21-6) from his next starting quarterback.
In the end, there is no more important statistic than that.
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.