The Hawkeyes rushed for 19 yards in a 17-10 loss. Chad Leistikow/HawkCentral
For the second straight week, the Iowa football team is forced to pick up the pieces after a tough-to-swallow loss.
The 17-10 defeat at Michigan State was all about missed opportunities, turnovers and the surprising struggle to run the football.
The Hawkeyes’ 19 rushing yards on 25 attempts understandably puts the DVR Monday focus on what led to the program’s lowest run-game output in 12 years.
A bad day for the OL
The variety of woes surrounding offensive-line play were evident in Iowa’s first three handoffs in East Lansing, Michigan.
First run call: On an outside zone left to the short side of the field, left guard Boone Myers couldn’t get to excellent linebacker Joe Bachie in time. That foiled the play, and Bachie stuffed Akrum Wadley for no gain.
Second run call: Backed up to its own 9-yard line, offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz called an outside zone run to the right. The first problem was, Michigan State saw it coming. When tight end Noah Fant came in motion right, three of the Spartans’ four down linemen shifted left. That left nobody directly in front of Myers at left guard.
At the snap, Myers tried to dive to cut down defensive tackle Mike Pansiuk — now lined up over center — but couldn’t get there. To make matters worse, left tackle Alaric Jackson tripped over Myers’ laid-flat body, meaning neither player blocked a man. Pansiuk barged into Iowa’s backfield, and Wadley was immediately running laterally four yards behind the line of scrimmage. Wadley had nowhere to run, especially after fullback Brady Ross blocked air, and he lost 2 yards.
Third run call: A draw play on third-and-12 against a four-man front should work for something, right? Not when center James Daniels and right tackle Sean Welsh, who are thought of as Iowa’s two best linemen, fail to block anyone. The play lost a yard, and Iowa short-punted, and Michigan State turned that into a 14-0 first-quarter lead.
“You win and lose as a team. You can’t really single anybody out,” said Myers, who was replaced by Ross Reynolds and didn’t return after missing a block in the third quarter. “It’s a team game. There’s 11 guys on the field. We’ve all got to get better.”
Combating the blitz
Like Penn State the week before, Michigan State took an aggressive approach at stopping the Hawkeyes. The Spartans unofficially blitzed on 19 of Iowa’s 57 snaps Saturday (33 percent).
Iowa netted 98 yards on those 19 blitzes. That’s a decent 5.2 yards per clip, compared with an average of 3.5 yards on the other 38 plays. Nate Stanley hit two nice deep balls — one to Ihmir Smith-Marsette for 31 yards, one to Nick Easley for 32 — against the blitz. He also found Matt VandeBerg for 16 yards after escaping pressure.
When Michigan State blitzed, Stanley was actually an impressive 8-for-12 for 105 yards. But he was sacked twice (for minus-10), and Iowa’s five handoffs against blitzes netted just 3 yards. Those are the bigger issues.
“Teams do a good job, especially the last two weeks, game-planning for us – our checks,” Welsh said.
Stanley, a fast-learning true sophomore just five games into his starting career, will improve with time in checking into better plays.
Right tackle Sean Welsh speaks after a 17-10 loss to Michigan State. Chad Leistikow
Pass pro, clock management
Even when Michigan State didn’t blitz, Iowa’s offensive line failed at times to hold up.
With a late-first half chance to get into field goal range — after the Hawkeyes took over at their own 40 with 37 seconds left — a three-man rush on third down got almost-instant pressure on Stanley. Left tackle Alaric Jackson was beaten badly, and Fox Sports analyst Brady Quinn surmised that VandeBerg was available in the middle of the field (for what on replay looked like it could’ve been a 20-yard gain). Flushed left, Stanley threw the ball away.
A minor thing to follow up: I didn’t like Iowa’s decision to punt with 5 seconds left in the first half on fourth down from its own 41. Throw a Hail Mary. Any deep pass would expire the clock, and it gives your team a chance to score. Or maybe you get a pass interference call; the half can’t end on a defensive penalty.
Punting in bounds (which Iowa did) in that situation actually gives the opponent a better chance to score via block or return.
Matt VandeBerg says it would help to hit some of these. Chad Leistikow/HawkCentral
Upon further review, Brian Ferentz’s first half was probably too conservative — a byproduct, as you’d expect, of terrible field position.
“That's two weeks in a row where we have been in that position and haven't been able to change that,” head coach Kirk Ferentz told the university’s website Sunday. “That is the next thing on our list; if we're going to be successful, we're going to have to not necessarily score, but we have to move the ball out to a decent position and then punt it down and give our defense good field position.”
But, this might surprise you: Brian Ferentz’s second half was actually pretty good. The Hawkeyes were gaining offensive traction, especially in the third quarter, but were foiled by turnovers and poor QB-to-receiver execution.
The fluky lost fumble by Stanley as he was about to throw a possible touchdown pass obviously sticks out. That cost Iowa seven points in a seven-point loss.
But two fourth-quarter missed connections from Stanley to Easley were almost as regrettable.
On third-and-2 from Michigan State’s 25 as Iowa was moving swiftly downfield, Stanley had Easley wide open on a little out route — but threw behind the junior. Incomplete. Iowa settled for a Miguel Recinos field goal.
Then with a chance to drive for the tying score, Iowa went three-and-out when Easley dropped a third-and-5 crossing pass with green grass in front of him and green jerseys behind him. Iowa punted, and didn't get the ball back again until 45 seconds remained.
Bottom line: Iowa didn’t lose this game because of its 34-year-old offensive coordinator.
The all-about-the-offense version of DVR Monday finishes with three P's to success.
Personnel: It’s worth mentioning that Iowa doesn’t have the full use of two senior offensive tackles it planned to have this fall. Myers has continued to labor through a high-ankle sprain; that’s turned him into a part-time guard instead of a full-time left tackle. And right tackle Ike Boettger isn’t coming back after season-ending Achilles surgery.
So, as Kirk Ferentz has said, the cavalry isn't coming. Perhaps the best option of getting Welsh to move back inside, to his natural guard position, is how quickly true freshman Tristan Wirfs, the backup right tackle, can come along.
Predictability: More play-action passes and bootlegs — maybe even changing formations — should be on the table against attacking defenses. The first time Iowa ran a bootleg pass Saturday, it went for 11 yards to T.J. Hockenson.
Patience: Under Kirk Ferentz, Iowa has rarely been a great September team. Unfortunately, the calendar called for five September games this year. October has only three, with Illinois on deck Saturday (11 a.m., Big Ten Network).
Iowa's defense has allowed 36 points in two Big Ten games. That’s a winning number.
Let’s bookmark this Michigan State loss and see how fast the Hawkeyes can progress offensively before losing faith in this season.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.