Leistikow: What Hawkeyes can do (and what they can't) to fix their offensive line
IOWA CITY, Ia. — It has to be a bit humbling for Kirk Ferentz that the area that’s largely holding back his Iowa football team against elite teams is his area of expertise: the offensive line.
Of course, the Hawkeyes’ head coach isn’t explicitly saying that. But the film doesn’t lie. The interior of Iowa’s offensive line derailed what the Hawkeyes wanted to do against Michigan and Penn State.
Ferentz knows that.
"If we're not protecting the quarterback, it's going to be tough to operate the way we want to operate,” Ferentz acknowledged Tuesday, ahead of Saturday’s 11 a.m. homecoming game against Purdue. "So that's certainly paramount. Just like running the football better, that's paramount on the list, too."
As the head coach, it’s his job to fix it.
If he needs to double as the team’s offensive line coach — the role he held from 1981 to 1989 during Hayden Fry’s Hawkeye heyday and in the NFL for six years under Bill Belichick and Ted Marchibroda — he should. It’s that important.
Of course, Ferentz balked at that notion, too, other than acknowledging what we see during occasional open-to-the-media practices — that he often gravitates toward the offensive line.
"Things aren’t different. We're not looking at this like it's anything different," Ferentz said. "We just have to get better as a football team.
"And because I show up somewhere doesn't mean things are going to get better, for the record. It's not that easy."
In other words, Ferentz isn’t treating two glaringly bad weeks of pass protection and run blocking as a crisis.
But, if Iowa hopes to win the Big Ten West, this is an urgent situation.
The Hawkeyes, thankfully, welcome a banged-up Purdue defense this week that is ranked 13th in the Big Ten and should help make the offensive line look better. After this, though, comes another tough defense at Northwestern. Then an idle week and the significant showdown Nov. 9 at Wisconsin.
The way Iowa blocked against Michigan and Penn State won’t be sufficient in Madison, against a defense that has pitched four shutouts in six games.
The Hawkeyes (4-2 overall, 1-2 Big Ten) have to be in Wisconsin-prep mode, without saying that, today. And tomorrow. And in these next two games plus the second off week.
What can Iowa realistically fix or upgrade?
Let's start with what it can't.
The physical limitations are the physical limitations. There’s no in-season trades or free-agent pickups available, like in the NFL. Iowa’s roster is what it is.
A season-ending injury to fourth-year junior Cole Banwart, a nine-game starter at right guard, was significant because of the leadership he brought to an inexperienced interior offensive line that includes first-year center Tyler Linderbaum.
Walk-on guard Kyler Schott, one of the season’s early bright spots, is out at least two more games with a significant foot injury. Iowa can't count on him to save the day.
Iowa tried three guards against Penn State: Senior Landan Paulsen and freshman Cody Ince on the left, sophomore Mark Kallenberger on the right. It was a miracle that quarterback Nate Stanley wasn't more badly injured for all the clean shots he sustained from physical pass rushers coming right up the middle.
Senior Levi Paulsen, who has seven career starts, didn’t play an offensive snap against Penn State after struggling in relief of Banwart at Michigan. For now, Landan Paulsen and Kallenberger remain the starters. But Ferentz said he was keeping an open mind and monitoring practices.
What about Justin Britt?
The true freshman was an intriguing talent even before setting foot on campus. The Indianapolis product (6-foot-5, 290 pounds) hasn’t gotten an extended look of meaningful action, but his arrow is clearly pointed up.
If he’s ready, working him steadily into the mix against Purdue could be Iowa’s best four-week (and long-term) plan. If he does well, give him another shot at Northwestern. The Hawkeyes accelerated the growth of young line talents James Daniels (a second-round NFL Draft pick) and Tristan Wirfs (a projected top-10 pick) by playing them as true freshmen.
Ferentz didn't dismiss Britt as an option for at least part-time duty against Purdue.
“If we can get him in the game, we'll get him in the game,” Ferentz said. “I will say he's improving every week and had a good day today. He's pushing that direction. We have an open mind, have had an open mind over a month now with him and everybody.”
It should be noted that left tackle Alaric Jackson’s early-season injury hasn’t helped cohesion. He admits that he's been slow to return to form after missing three games. Iowa has used five starting line combinations in six games.
So, about the stuff that can be fixed … that's where the coaches' focus has to be this week.
"Communication pretty much. Haven’t been sound with that,” Jackson said. “This week should be pretty good for us. We got a few things cleaned up.”
As much as it has to gnaw at Ferentz, that's all he can focus on.
Maybe giving Britt a try. And coaching the existing guys up.
If there's one area that could get fixed mid-season at Iowa, it's probably offensive line given the head coach's acumen.
The season might depend on it.
"The things that are correctable — aiming points, footwork, whatever it may be – (are) things we can really work on during the week,” Ferentz said. “I told our team this morning, our good teams, one common denominator, they improved every week. As the season goes on, we get better.
“We've been 2-2 before and had great seasons (2004). There's still a lot out there to be playing for, but it's not going to happen if we don't improve."
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.