Leistikow's 8 thoughts: On Iowa's passing game, QB sneaks and 2-point conversion woes

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — We’ll see this week what kind of emotional response the Iowa football team can produce after back-to-back deflating losses to Michigan and Penn State by a combined 12 points.

The Hawkeyes understand, though, their season isn’t down the tubes, even if it feels like that sometimes. They’re still a top-25 team (ranked 22nd by the coaches, 23rd by The Associated Press), and the back half of their schedule is entirely against the other six teams in the Big Ten Conference’s West Division.

“The morale in the locker room, I think dudes are still hungry,” senior co-captain Michael Ojemudia said. “There’s going to be a lot of motivation and a lot of hunger this week.”

Iowa receivers Brandon Smith (after scoring his touchdown against Penn State) and Nico Ragaini each have 24 receptions this season, tied for the team lead with Ihmir Smith-Marsette.

Iowa (4-2, 1-2 Big Ten) will play host to Purdue (2-4, 1-2) at 11 a.m. Saturday with a chance to avenge two straight losses to Jeff Brohm’s Boilermakers. The Hawkeyes are favored by 18 points.

Although they are two games back in the West standings, the Hawkeyes only need a small amount of help if they can run the table. A West title remains the primary goal, and it’s been discussed this week as a motivational carrot.

“We know that goal is still out on the table,” senior co-captain and quarterback Nate Stanley said. “To be able to accomplish it starts this week. We have to be ready to play. No game in the Big Ten West is easy.”

Of course, the offense’s woeful 7.5 points per game in the two losses was a primary Tuesday topic.

“Obviously disappointed in our performance,” Stanley said.

But it’s a new week, and a new opportunity against a Purdue defense that ranks 13th in the Big Ten (ahead only of Rutgers). And it comes with a positive mindset.

The passing game, amid the scoring struggles, has been largely effective. That’s reflected in the fact that three wide receivers are tied for the team lead with 24 receptions each — Ihmir Smith-Marsette (386 yards), Brandon Smith (301) and Nico Ragaini (249). Those numbers are already career-highs for Smith-Marsette and Ragaini, and Smith (28 catches for 361 yards a year ago) is close.

Throw in a bowl game, and each receiver is on pace for 52 receptions — which would match the season total of 2018 leading receiver Nick Easley.

"That’s definitely something that we wanted,” said Ragaini, a slot receiver who had seven gritty grabs in the 17-12 loss to Penn State. “Last year, we had two great tight ends, so we didn’t have a chance to be out there the same time."

Can't Stanley just sneak the ball on every play? (Insert laugh here.)

His proficiency on quarterback sneaks this year has become a thing; he was 4-for-4 on conversions against Penn State, gaining 12 yards on those sneaks. That 3.0 per-sneak average is better than the 2.2 Iowa averaged on its other 26 rushing attempts. Stanley even had one sneak earlier this year go for 10 yards.

Of course, I'm joking about the premise. But I did ask Stanley about why they've been so effective.

"We’ve done a lot of different things to disguise those sneaks," Stanley said. "We’ve had a lot of success with it."

Does he have the latitude to improvise with a sneak on, say, third-and-3 when the defensive line isn't covering the center?

“I’m not going to say no, because we have the ability to do a lot of different things in the offense," Stanley said, grinning. "But I think you have to do it within reason."

Here's a wild, unfortunate stat: Iowa has failed to convert its last nine two-point conversion attempts.

A dead-on-arrival miss against Penn State extended the streak that began in the 2016 season, when Greg Davis was offensive coordinator. Iowa is 0-for-7 on two-pointers in the Brian Ferentz era, including misses in each of the past two Purdue games. (Iowa lost by two, 38-36, last year in West Lafayette.)

Stanley said the team has “a lot of those game-planned,” but obviously those plays haven't been working. NFL teams often devise trickery to convert two-pointers, because of how much they can swing an outcome. But Iowa's two-point play calls have been almost entirely passes and have lacked creativity.

Numbers on this are hard to nail down, but the success rate in college is in the ballpark of 40% or 45%. Iowa’s is 0% with Stanley at quarterback. The last successful Iowa two-pointer was a LeShun Daniels Jr. run to give Iowa a 14-7 lead at Minnesota on Oct. 8, 2016.

Another statistic Iowa wants to change: scoring on defense.

I asked Ojemudia if he knew the last time Iowa scored defensive points.

“Definitely last year. We haven’t scored this year,” he said. “What game was it?”

Answer: Illinois last season, when A.J. Epenesa ran back a fumble for a touchdown.

An eight-game scoring drought counts as a long one for a Phil Parker defense.

“We’re definitely due for one,” Ojemudia said. “Coach Parker has been talking about it, that we need to get our hands on the ball more. Watching film and anticipating more, having more intensity is the way to get that.”

Heck, turnovers would do. Iowa didn’t force a turnover against Penn State. After the only turnover it caused at Michigan, Stanley threw it right back with an interception. Iowa is minus-5 in turnovers the past few games but hopes for more opportunities against Purdue's pass-heavy approach and with young quarterback Jack Plummer.

“Some turnovers are definitely going to come this week,” Ojemudia said. “It’s our job to be ready when the time comes."

Kristian Welch was named a game captain, a decent indicator that the middle linebacker will return to action against Purdue.

Kirk Ferentz hasn't specified Welch's injury, only saying he was "nicked up." But his absence after helmet-to-helmet contact with teammate Amani Jones was notable. Welch has been Iowa's best linebacker this season. On Tuesday, Ferentz said he expected Welch to play and added: "Hopefully he'll be fine."

Also on the injury front, Ferentz said right guard Kyler Schott (who started two games before suffering a foot injury during a Sept. 22 practice) would remain out of action until at least the Nov. 9 game at Wisconsin. 

We may have seen the last action from Ivory Kelly-Martin this season; but that's by choice.

The junior has fallen back to No. 4 in the running-back pecking order. And since he has played in four games, he could still redshirt if he doesn't play in a fifth. That seems to be the plan, unless Iowa gets into injury trouble. It's a good plan; Iowa could still use promising freshman Shadrick Byrd for four games (he's played none) if it gets into a mop-up duty situation.

"We would be smart to try to protect Ivory if we can," Ferentz said. "But we're also trying to win this year. We'll stay flexible on it."

And you thought Noah Fant was out of eligibility ...

Of course, the former Hawkeye is (now playing with the Denver Broncos). But Purdue has a tight end named Brycen Hopkins, who had 10 catches for 140 yards in Saturday's 40-14 win against Maryland. 

"He reminds me of Noah Fant," Hawkeye safety Geno Stone said. "A big, fast tight end. They’ve got some speed out there."

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.