Leistikow: 8 eye-opening statistics that shaped Iowa's football season

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — An 8-4 regular season for Iowa football is in the books. Sounds like a typical Kirk Ferentz season, maybe a little above average. But the statistical profile of this team was unlike any other in the 20-year Ferentz era.

While waiting to learn which bowl game picks the Hawkeyes (that doesn’t happen until Sunday), this is a great time to reflect on what transpired over the past 13 weeks.

A.J. Epenesa (9.5 sacks), left, and Cedrick Lattimore didn't start for the Iowa defense. But the quality depth they provided on the defensive line was a reason Phil Parker's defense in 2018 was his best in seven years as defensive coordinator.

Of course, there’s one game to go. So the numbers will adjust to “final” status after the bowl game — most likely Holiday (on Dec. 31), Outback (Jan. 1) or Citrus (Jan. 1). But I found eight conclusions within the numbers of this team, many of which I didn’t expect to find.

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1. The offense compares favorably with 2015.

In Year 2 with Brian Ferentz as offensive coordinator, the Hawkeyes have averaged 389.7 yards per game. If that holds, it’ll be the most at Iowa since the 2014 team that was playing a lot of catch-up got to 400.1 per game and second-most since Drew Tate led the 2005 team to a whopping 432.4 yards per game.

Brian Ferentz said he wanted his offenses to resemble the balance achieved by the 2015 team. He got pretty close. The Rose Bowl team that went 12-2 averaged 386.1 yards per game with C.J. Beathard at the helm — 181.7 rushing, 204.4 passing.

While the Nate Stanley-led 2018 Hawkeyes were a little heavier on the pass, the ratios aren’t that far off — 162.0 rushing, 227.7 passing.

Anthony Nelson had 9.5 sacks this season, including two against Nebraska, as a dominant left defensive end for the Hawkeyes.

2. This is Iowa’s best defense since 2009.

Phil Parker’s seventh year as defensive coordinator was his best, at least on the stat sheet. No team in the Big Ten Conference allowed fewer points. Iowa pitched two shutouts and held Iowa State (which will finish 8-4) to a mere field goal.

And the 289.6 yards allowed per game would mark the program’s lowest since the 2009 team (which has produced Iowa’s only BCS bowl win in the Hayden Fry-Kirk Ferentz era) allowed 276.5. That's impressive, especially while competing within today's offense-friendly rules.

3. An eye-opening scoring differential: Plus-14.1.

Iowa’s 31.5 points per game on offense would be the most since 2002. Its 17.4 points allowed would be fewest since 2010.

That disparity of 14.1 points per game — two touchdowns — would mark the program’s third-best scoring differential under Ferentz. The only teams to exceed that: 2008 (30.3 to 13.0; plus-17.3) and 2002 (37.2 to 19.7; plus-17.5).

Two takeaways.

One, that stat suggests this team should have been better than 8-4. A lack of clutch plays in key moments held the Hawkeyes back from 10-2 or better.

Two, the 2008 team seems to be a recurring comparison. That group had four close regular-season losses, then thumped its bowl opponent before launching a 9-0 start in 2009.

4. Nate Stanley: 49 TD passes in two seasons.

With one more in a bowl game, the junior will have the most touchdown passes in a two-year span by any Hawkeye quarterback. Stanley is currently tied with Chuck Long (who threw for 22 in 1984, a school-record 27 in 1985) for that distinction.

A little deeper inside the numbers: Stanley’s TD-to-interception ratio went from 26-to-6 last year to 23-to-9 in 2018. Both are beyond acceptable. His yards per attempt rose from 6.94 to 7.23. His completion percentage went from 55.8 to 58.6. (He wanted to reach at least 60 percent — he'd need to complete 26 of 35 passes in the bowl game to get there.)

Don't forget, he's been playing through a sprained throwing thumb since late October.

Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz practiced a ball-control approach this season.

5. What Iowa’s 33:03 average time of possession tells us.

That’s an excellent number, which ranked second in the Big Ten (behind Michigan) and 13th nationally.

The number may be skewed a little bit, because of the growing number of up-tempo teams within the Big Ten West — Nebraska, as an example, is a team that likes to push the pace. Iowa ran 73 plays to Nebraska’s 71 in Friday’s game, yet the Hawkeyes held the ball for 34 minutes, 41 seconds to Nebraska’s 25:19.

But it does tell us that Iowa’s ball-control approach worked well to keep opposing offenses off the field. Iowa ran 82 more plays than its opponents this season (845 to 763; an average of nearly seven extra snaps per game). Last year, Iowa ran 78 fewer plays than its opponents (836 to 914).

Iowa led Wisconsin, 17-14, into the final minute before losing. The Hawkeyes also lost in the final minutes against Penn State and Purdue.

6. Iowa’s worst quarter was the fourth.

And that’s, in part, the reason for close losses.

Iowa dominated its opponents to the tune of 230-98 in the second and third quarters. But in the fourth? Iowa’s edge was only 77-70.

In the Hawkeyes’ two home losses to division foes, they were shut out by Wisconsin (14-0) and Northwestern (7-0) in the fourth quarters. And they were outscored 15-0 in the fourth against Nebraska until Miguel Recinos' walk-off field goal.

Finding ways to finish stronger needs to be an offseason topic of discussion.

7. The most big plays for the pass defense in 16 years.

There’s still one game to go, yet this is already Iowa’s best big-play defense since 2002.

The Hawkeyes’ 18 interceptions (16 coming in their last eight games) are tied for first nationally. Their 34 sacks are tied for 18th (and the most in the program since 2003). Put together, that’s 52 big plays out of the pass defense — which is the most for the Hawkeyes since the 2002 team racked up 60 (20 interceptions, 40 sacks).

Credit to Parker for getting more play-makers on the field — especially younger guys like Amani Hooker, Geno Stone, Chauncey Golston and A.J. Epenesa.

8. Tight ends really did make this offense go.

I doubt any other program could boast that tight ends accounted for more receiving yards than its wide receivers. But that was the case for Iowa.

Mackey Award finalist T.J. Hockenson (46 catches, 717 yards, six TDs), projected first-round NFL Draft pick Noah Fant (39 catches, 519 yards, seven TDs) and third tight end Nate Wieting combined for 1,287 yards and 13 touchdowns on 87 receptions.

By comparison, Iowa’s wide receivers — led by Nick Easley (44 for 390) — compiled 1,141 yards and seven TDs on 98 receptions.

No wonder the upcoming NFL decisions of Hockenson and Fant will impact Iowa’s 2019 expectations so greatly.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.