Leistikow: After another big-stage dud, here are 4 things on Hawkeyes' must-do list
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — In three years with Brian Ferentz and Nate Stanley in charge of Iowa’s offense, three spotlight road games against ranked teams in hostile stadiums have come along.
2017 at Wisconsin.
2018 at Penn State.
Saturday at Michigan.
The one thing they have in common?
Not a single touchdown was scored by the Iowa offense. In any of them.
Two defensive scores by Josh Jackson were all the Hawkeyes mustered two years ago in Madison. Defensive and special-teams scores kept things tight a year ago in Happy Valley. And this weekend at Michigan Stadium, No. 14 Iowa managed just a meager field goal in a 10-3 loss before 111,519 fans.
It was bad.
And it was even worse than offensive lineman Tristan Wirfs thought. He inquired during postgame interviews how many times Stanley was sacked by the Wolverines and was surprised by the total.
“Eight? That kind of makes me sick,” the junior tackle said. “That’s terrible.”
Indeed, it was a tough loss to stomach from a Hawkeye perspective on many levels.
The Wolverines may be ranked 18th, but this is not a great Michigan team. A great defensive performance, sure. But not a great team. Jim Harbaugh and his squad saved national face Saturday, but they could’ve been had by these Hawkeyes. But just like Penn State a year ago, the offense didn’t have the answers.
And once again, Iowa walks out of a giant road opportunity with a deflating loss.
The defense played lights-out. Michigan’s big-play offense had just one play longer than 20 yards.
That was also Iowa’s rushing total.
One. As in one yard.
“It’s going to be hard to get this taste out of our mouth,” Wirfs said. “We’ve got to do what we’ve got to do. We have to move on, as tough as it’s going to be. We’ve got another opponent next week. It’s not like the season is going to stop or anything.”
And, much like the Hawkeyes’ approach, this column is now transitioning to moving on — and fixing what happened.
“There’s a lot of football in front of us. That’s what we have to focus on,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said, noting he was not discouraged because of what he’s seen from this group behind the scenes. “It’s good to feel a sting, too. That kind of motivates you to move forward a little bit faster.”
And there will be no soft rebound. This is where the schedule actually gets tougher. So here’s the post-Michigan to-do list that Iowa needs to deploy.
No. 1: Figure out the offensive line.
I admittedly touted this group for how dominant it was through four games; it was rolling at 29th in the nation in total offense. But obviously, the return of Alaric Jackson at left tackle wasn’t helpful in protecting Stanley; a decision Ferentz said was "on me." Coaches will need to determine if the line is better with or without Jackson until he is 100% up-to-speed.
But the bigger issue is picking up blitzes. Because Penn State will bring them.
Buckle up. The Nittany Lions racked up 10 sacks of Purdue quarterbacks Saturday in a dominating, 35-7 win. If that means putting fullback Brady Ross into the backfield on third downs for pass protection, so be it. Everything needs to be on the table.
Stanley, too, needs to be better.
“I took probably too many sacks today. I should’ve thrown the ball away and cut the losses on some of those,” the senior quarterback said. “They did a lot of things as far as games and pressures that were hard for us to pick up.”
No. 2: Make Tyler Goodson your starting running back.
Alter the depth chart, effective immediately. Make him No. 1. Mekhi Sargent and Toren Young deserve to keep playing, but Goodson (even as a true freshman) has proven he has the wiggle to make defenses sweat. He has proven that he’s ready for more reliance.
Goodson disappeared for too long, considering the flow of a 10-3 game. He finished with five catches for a team-high 62 yards and might’ve given the run game a little more teeth had he gotten more than six carries (for 15 yards) in a one-score duel.
“Every time you see him play, he’s got good ability,” Ferentz said. “I’m more impressed with just the way he plays out there and the way he acts like he belongs. He took another step today, certainly. He made some big plays out there. He competes. Does a really good job. It just makes us better in that backfield.”
Sounds like a full endorsement to me.
No. 3: Lean more heavily on the defense.
I might be alone here, but I didn’t hate the Iowa offensive approach of taking more deep shots than usual. The execution was obviously lacking on pass protection. Giving up minus-65 yards on sacks, plus 30 more on accepted holding penalties, shows that.
But the lesson learned Saturday is that even when the running game isn’t great, it’s better to keep moving forward. On run plays, Iowa actually was serviceable — 22 carries for 66 net yards; that’s right at three a pop. Not good enough, but it could’ve made for more advantageous field-position gains.
We did learn Saturday that Iowa’s bend-don’t-break defense can be the catalyst. The defensive line had its best game of the season.
No. 4: Let this one hurt until Sunday.
Ferentz referenced it; turn this into a rallying cry. The two big-stage losses I referenced at the start of this column? Iowa actually turned around the next week and lost again (both times to Purdue).
I asked a few of the team leaders how they would ideally approach the recovery.
Said Stanley: “Make sure everybody’s brutally honest with what’s on the tape, and make sure we don’t lose any focus on our ultimate goals.”
Correct. Iowa’s ability to win the Big Ten West still hinges on that Nov. 9 game at Wisconsin.
Coaches know what didn’t work the past two years; it’s up to them to get Iowa ready for Penn State.
Stone, the Pennyslvania native, can finish this up.
“We can’t let this define us of who we are. We need to take this loss and turn it into motivation,” he said. “We definitely left some plays out there on both sides of the ball. I feel like we definitely can turn this into something special."
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.