Hawkeye mailbag: Tweaks Brian Ferentz can make against Penn State; a Jordan Bohannon hypothetical

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

It’s completely fair that the Iowa offense will go under the microscope Saturday night on network television.

Almost all of the questions during Thursday’s Hawk Central Facebook Live conversation understandably revolved around that side of the football, considering the offense was held to a mere field goal in last weekend’s loss at Michigan.

What adjustments, if any, will offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz make in Saturday’s 6:44 p.m., ABC-televised matchup against No. 9 Penn State?

One change in the plans is to get play calls in to quarterback Nate Stanley sooner. Too often against Michigan, Stanley was getting to the line of scrimmage with the play clock below 10 seconds. More time to survey the defense helps.

Another change might be a more extended usage of Tyler Goodson. The true freshman running back was No. 18 Iowa’s highest-graded offensive player against Michigan, according to Pro Football Focus, in his 34 snaps.

Tyler Goodson was this week elevated to Iowa's depth chart (at No. 3 running back) for the first time. He has 40 carries for 228 yards and 14 receptions for 83.

Although head coach Kirk Ferentz likes his three-back committee of Mekhi Sargent, Toren Young and Goodson, the chorus is growing (including from me) to make Goodson more prominent. One avenue for Iowa to do that, while still preserving the committee approach, is to use more split-back sets — getting two on the field at the same time. Goodson as a receiving threat (his 14 receptions lead all Big Ten running backs) adds to that allure.

Who comes out? Perhaps a tight end. The Hawkeyes had no tight-end catches at Michigan despite Nate Wieting and Shaun Beyer combining for 80 snaps.

The Hawkeyes talk relentlessly about putting their best 11 players on the field. Go four-wide with one running back or three-wide with two running backs. Perhaps emptying the box will loosen up the crowd in the backfield as well.

TOPIC: Should there be a “changing of the guard” on the offensive line?

Everything was on the table this week after the Hawkeyes yielded eight sacks against Michigan. But the line's pillars remain intact. Left tackle Alaric Jackson should have his feet under him after a rusty return against Michigan. Right tackle Tristan Wirfs remains an elite lineman despite a subpar game. And center Tyler Linderbaum is one of the team's top players.

So what about guard? Landan and Levi Paulsen got the bulk of the snaps there against Michigan, especially after Cole Banwart exited with a leg injury. They were Iowa’s two lowest-graded linemen at Michigan, according to PFF. Unfortunately, Kyler Schott’s left foot remained in a boot this week, so he’s not ready to return.

Another option is giving sophomore Mark Kallenberger, a highly regarded backup tackle, a shot to play inside. He showed improvement in Jackson's absence. This probably isn’t the week for true freshman Justin Britt — even though he has rare athleticism on the O-line and has rotated on a limited basis at right guard — to be thrown into the fire against perhaps the best pass rush in college football.

TOPIC: If Iowa goes 9-3 with close losses to Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin, is it a successful season?

We actually didn’t get to this one on Facebook Live, but should have. It’s a fascinating question.  If Iowa has to muddle through star injuries (to Stanley and A.J. Epenesa, for example) and still goes 9-3, yeah, 9-3 would feel like a success.

But on this day, I’d still say no — not for a team with legit Big Ten West title aspirations. With a senior quarterback, two potential top-10 NFL Draft picks and the nation's third-best scoring defense, the pieces are in place to win a division title. That’s why this game against Penn State carries significant importance for how Iowa’s 2019 season is remembered. Beat a top-10 team at Kinnick, and they can’t ever take that away.

TOPIC: What is a winning point total for Iowa’s defense Saturday?

Sportsbooks have the over/under in this game around 42 points, with cold and windy conditions expected. If Iowa holds the Nittany Lions to 17 points, that should be sufficient for a win.

Although Penn State is averaging 47 points a game, that number has been inflated by facing weak defenses. The Nittany Lions had to survive a 17-10 win Sept. 14 against Pittsburgh against by far the best defense they’ve faced all year. 

TOPIC: How will Jordan Bohannon’s playing decision pan out?

As I wrote Wednesday, it sure sounds like Bohannon wants to try to play in games this season if his surgically right hip allows. He also doesn’t seem convinced he can play a full season, considering he hasn’t even started to practice.

A reasonable scenario would be to sit out Iowa’s first three games (against SIU-Edwardsville, DePaul and Oral Roberts) and target a Nov. 21 return for North Florida. That’d give him two extra weeks of conditioning and rehab beyond the season opener and would mark six months since surgery.

He could safely play nine games (again, if he’s able) without seriously jeopardizing his ability to land a medical-hardship waiver. Iowa has matchups against Texas Tech, Syracuse, Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa State and Cincinnati in that nine-game stretch.

Bohannon is familiar with the case of Naz Mitrou-Long, who had hip surgeries before his fourth year at Iowa State. Mitrou-Long played in eight games that 2015-16 season, then didn't play after a December showdown against Iowa. His waiver was approved, and he averaged a career-best 15.1 points per game in his fifth year.

A similar scenario could unfold for Bohannon.

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.