Hawkeye football mailbag: Is there anything creative about the Iowa offense?

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

It’s no surprise that this week’s Iowa football consternation is again with the offense. Picking apart the last two weeks has been simultaneously insightful and painful.

There’s clearly an issue on the interior of the offensive line that’s derailed a team that gained more than 600 yards against Michigan and Penn State but scored only 15 total points. But what else could use a tweak?

That’s where Wednesday’s Hawk Central Facebook Live session was largely focused, starting with a valid and pointed question: Is there anything creative about the Iowa offense?

That one got me thinking for a second. And probably got you thinking, too.

The long answer is that offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz’s runs a “multiple” pro-style offense, which means he’s operating with a lot of different personnel groups and formations onto the field. Iowa feels as comfortable with two tight ends and a fullback on the field as it does with with three or four receivers.

So in that sense, Iowa actually is more diverse schematically than a lot of offenses out there.

But the short answer, which I think gets to the point of the question, is … not really.

Although Hayden Fry’s 1980s offenses were designed to run the ball and throw out of play-action (just like Iowa’s offense is today), he also understood the importance and value of what he called "exotics." They serves as fun eye candy.

And I do think this Iowa offense lacks the "fun" factor.

I cannot think of a single trick play Iowa has attempted this season; that includes the usually zany special-teams unit of LeVar Woods. Not one. (Jet sweeps don’t count.)

Perhaps some fun and creativity would kick-start some positive offensive mojo.

How about a Wildcat look on third-and-short or first-and-goal? A halfback pass? How about a tight-end package with former quarterback Drew Cook, in which he takes a backward pass and throws downfield?

Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, left, and quarterback Nate Stanley need to put a lot of points on the scoreboard Saturday against Purdue.

Or, to borrow an idea I floated to my text-message group: How about putting Peyton Mansell, a mobile third-year backup quarterback who knows the system, in for two-point conversion attempts? Iowa is an alarming 0-for-7 on twos in the Brian Ferentz/Nate Stanley era and has missed nine in a row overall as a program. Give Mansell a run-pass option, and see if he can improvise Iowa to two points. Heck, try it after your first touchdown against Purdue.

Remember Iowa’s 2015 opener, when Kirk Ferentz called for a fake punt? … And it failed? … And Hawkeye fans cheered anyway? A little creativity (and fun) can go a long way, whether it works or not.

A few other hot-button issues:

TOPIC: What can Nate Stanley do differently this week?

While he’s becoming a legendary quarterback sneaker, I’d actually like to see him be more willing to use his legs. Getting Stanley on the move also can help limit a pass rush from teeing off. Purdue has 14 sacks this season (compared with Iowa’s 10). Considering Jeff Brohm has made a two-year living on exposing Iowa’s weakest links, he’ll definitely go after Iowa’s offensive guards as much as possible.

TOPIC: Why doesn’t Iowa run more over-the-middle routes to wide receivers?

Actually, I think they’ve done a good job connecting over the middle. Nico Ragaini has piled up 13 catches over the past two weeks, largely going into those “dark places” in traffic that Nick Easley used to visit for tough catches.

Remember, some of Iowa’s best deep-middle shots come off play-action (like to Ihmir Smith-Marsette against Rutgers). Until Iowa runs the ball effectively, those connections will be tougher to come by.

TOPIC: What can we learn about the Hawkeyes against Purdue?

One, it would help to be reminded that this is still a good Hawkeye team. Winning is imperative as an 18-point favorite; but shaking off any Penn State hangover with a dominant performance would be a nice response, too.

Two, we can learn more about Iowa’s defense. Sure, the Hawkeyes are the nation’s No. 5-ranked unit. But we’ll finally get to see the 4-2-5 in action against the pass-heavy Boilermakers, who put up 38 points on the Hawkeyes a year ago. Holding Purdue to 17 would be a winning number.

TOPIC: Just for fun, what would Iowa’s record be if the four NFL early entries had stayed in school?

Definitely 6-0. Let’s say Noah Fant departed (that was assumed all season) the other three were back.

Defensive end Anthony Nelson would’ve immensely helped the defensive-line rotation and pass rush — which, as we’ve seen by Iowa’s last two opponents, is the biggest catalyst at forcing turnovers.

Safety Amani Hooker’s presence would’ve helped Iowa better survive defensive-back injuries (and, again, create turnovers that have been lacking).

And lastly, of course, tight end T.J. Hockenson would have solved a lot of recent red-zone issues, run-game issues, blitz issues. Revisiting the loss of those four guys underscores how good this 2019 team could’ve been.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.