Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz says some of the issue is mental after falling at home, 24-15. Chad Leistikow / The Register
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa didn’t sell out a football game in 2017. Saturday’s crowd of 60,554 was the lowest at Kinnick Stadium this season by more than 5,000 fans. And there might’ve been 20,000 left by the end of the Hawkeyes’ troubling 24-15 home loss to Purdue.
That’s all to say that fans are generally apathetic about their 6-5 team heading into Friday’s regular-season finale at Nebraska.
And although I can’t put much of a positive spin on losing to Purdue in this week’s DVR Monday, I do want to at least start with something to build upon — and see what we can learn from there.
Stanley’s still good
It seems like every Monday, I come away more impressed with what sophomore quarterback Nate Stanley does on Saturdays.
(And heck, he might be Iowa’s best punter right now, too. But that’s a different conversation.)
No, his final passing numbers against Purdue weren't special — 16-for-33, 176 yards with one touchdown and one interception. But when given a chance to make a play, Stanley generally made it.
With a fourth-and-5 from Purdue’s 20 midway through the second quarter, Stanley made a pro throw to Matt VandeBerg for 18 yards — pump-faking and waiting just an instant to get a desirable passing lane, then uncorking a perfect ball into a small window for a first-and-goal that set up Akrum Wadley’s 2-yard touchdown run for a 9-7 lead.
After Purdue went ahead 14-9 to open the second half, Stanley answered with a nice deep ball (into the 20 mph wind) to Ihmir Smith-Marsette — who, as you know, dropped what would have been about a 30-yard gain. Stanley had three other crisp throws dropped Saturday — by my estimation, costing him an additional four completions and 58 yards ... not to mention more snaps with continuing drives.
In the third quarter, Stanley showed poise to collect James Daniels’ premature, wild snap that was still rolling 21 yards behind the line of scrimmage and throw it away without intentional grounding.
That's the kind of field-position savvy that Iowa needs from its punt game.
Stanley was sacked six times Saturday. There was probably little he could’ve done to avoid at least four of those. But if I had one criticism, I’d like to see more pocket awareness from the 6-foot-5, 237-pound passer.
Still, my main conclusion after the rewatch is this: Stanley needs to be given more of an opportunity to shine — and he’s not getting it.
Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley searches for answers after a 24-15 home loss. Chad Leistikow / The Register
One of the few times in the first three quarters that Iowa called a first-down pass play, Stanley threw a dart to Nick Easley for 21 yards — which turned into 36 with a Purdue personal-foul penalty tacked on.
What did Iowa do next?
It ran James Butler into the teeth of a nine-man Purdue front for a loss of a yard. Then an incompletion and sack forced an Iowa punt, after it had first-and-10 from the Boilermakers’ 24.
Iowa’s lack of aggression on first downs is puzzling. Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz called 15 runs and five passes in those situation in the first three quarters. Yet week after week (even in losses at Michigan State and Northwestern), we’ve seen that Stanley’s effectiveness peaks when throwing on first down.
For the day, Iowa ran 28 first-down plays — only two gained a first down (the Easley completion, and a 15-yard Wadley run). The 16 rushing attempts overall on first down averaged only 3.3 yards.
The least predictable thing Iowa can do on first down is throw the football. Big Ten Network analyst Matt Millen saw it, too, saying during the broadcast: “They’re loading the box. They’re daring Iowa to throw the football.”
And when Iowa gets in predictable passing situations, that’s when the sacks are more prone to occur. Stanley was sacked on third-and-13, third-and-11, second-and-7, second-and-11, second-and-10 and once on first down when Iowa was in the two-minute drill.
Iowa’s averaging just 3.5 yards a carry and its rushing offense ranks 107th out of 129 FBS programs. Until the Hawkeye program can be the run team it wants to be, it should first be trying to move the ball through the air with its talented quarterback.
Speaking of aggression...
It's always easy to harp on the offensive coordinator when things go wrong. But defensive coordinator Phil Parker shouldn't get a pass, either.
While Purdue was happy to blitz Iowa's sophomore quarterback, the Hawkeyes proved to be too timid on third-down defense against the Boilermakers' sophomore, Elijah Sindelar.
Purdue converted five of its first six third-down attempts (the only one it didn't was followed by an inexcusable roughing-the-punter penalty), and Sindelar wasn't blitzed once.
On Purdue's third play of the day, Sindelar scrambled for 9 yards on third-and-9 when Iowa's four-man rush lost the edge. Then on third-and-goal from Iowa's 5, Sindelar easily escaped outside to buy enough time to connect with D.J. Knox, who beat the one-on-one coverage of linebacker Bo Bower, for the touchdown.
On a windy day, the Hawkeyes needed to do a better job of forcing Purdue to make hurried throws. As a result? They lost the turnover battle 2-0.
Hankins is in
The Boilermakers’ third-quarter attack on Iowa’s right cornerbacks? It was actually set up by two simple throws in the second quarter.
After Iowa had taken a 9-7 lead, Sindelar slipped two passes to receiver Anthony Mahoungou — a 7-yarder in the left flat to convert a third-and-3, and a 10-yarder to convert a second-and-9.
Both passes were way too easy against Manny Rugamba’s coverage, and that’s why Sindelar went to Mahoungou five straight times to start the second half, and it changed the game. The first four game against Rugamba — the same curl route that went for 10 yards in the second quarter setting it all up for the 42-yard deep shot that put Purdue ahead, 14-9.
After Sindelar hit Mahoungou on the Boilermakers’ next drive for 35 yards over Michael Ojemudia, it became true freshman Matt Hankins’ turn.
Hankins did get beat on a subsequent touchdown throw, but the coverage was good. And he was later step-for-step on a few more downfield throws that fell incomplete.
The end result? Hankins, a 6-foot-1, 175-pound rookie from Lewisville, Texas, is now a starter. The Hawkeyes listed him No. 1 on their depth chart Monday, with Rugamba and Ojemudia as backups.
The key drop?
Although four dropped passes by Iowa’s receivers proved critical, one by safety Jake Gervase might have been the biggest of the game.
Leading 21-9, Purdue was pinned back for a third-and-7 from its own 8. The Kinnick crowd was as loud as it was all game. Sindelar threw over the middle, and Gervase cut inside Jarrett Burgess for what could’ve been an interception. It was a tough play, but Gervase should've made the catch. He couldn't hang on, however, and then Purdue punted 68 yards.
If Gervase catches it, the crowd is deafening with Iowa having the ball at Purdue's 26. Instead, Iowa started its next drive from its own 29.
It was that kind of a frustrating day for Iowa at Kinnick.
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.