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Leistikow: If Hawkeyes' offense gets long leash, 2020 can be a special season

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa football’s blueprint to a breakthrough season is already on file.

It didn’t quite work last time. But it almost worked. It should have worked. It can work when tried again.

The year was 2018. Maybe we overlooked it at the time, but the Hawkeyes’ offense had more playmakers than we realized. Who knew that September that Iowa had two tight ends that would be first-round NFL Draft picks by April?

Coaches probably had an idea. And … for most of the first half of the season, they gave the offense authorization to go on the attack. Kirk Ferentz was aggressive on special teams, too, OK’ing multiple fake field goals … and they worked! Iowa won six of its first seven games, the only loss being a last-minute heartbreaker to Wisconsin that can be mostly pinned on the defense’s stubbornness in sticking to a 4-3 scheme against wide-open sets. (Iowa changed to a base 4-2-5 in the subsequent bye week.)

After Nate Stanley threw six touchdown passes in a 42-16 rout at Indiana, the Hawkeyes were 6-1 and rolling into Happy Valley for a rematch with 5-2 Penn State.

Iowa can have a license to be aggressive offensively in 2020, thanks to a bevy of trusted playmakers like Ihmir Smith-Marsette (6).

And everything was going right for Iowa that Saturday. Iowa was leading, 14-7, early in the second quarter and had just sent Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley hobbling to the sidelines. It was third-and-1 from the Nittany Lions’ 48. Iowa went into a short-yardage set with three tight ends. Stanley executed the best fake handoff of his life to Toren Young. Penn State was fooled. T.J. Hockenson was running free behind the secondary. It was surely going to be a 48-yard touchdown and a 21-7 Hawkeye lead.

But … Stanley missed him. An overthrow by five yards. Not long after, Stanley was intercepted, McSorley returned, Stanley hurt his thumb and the Hawkeyes were in a dogfight they eventually lost. They let their opponent be the aggressor in their next two games and lost both, by a combined six points, to fall to 6-4.

The missed throw at Penn State changed the course of that season. It was there. Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz trusted his very good players. It was the right call; it just didn't work out.

The plan of aggression should have worked. It can work when tried again.

(Sense a theme here?)

Now it’s 2020. Yeah, it’s an unusual 2020, to say the least. But there are parallels to 2018.

Just like in 2018, the Hawkeyes are relying on a strong-armed quarterback in his third year in the program.

And while the 2020 Hawkeyes don’t have two first-rounders at tight end, they certainly have the most speed threats in Brian Ferentz’s four years as offensive coordinator — with running back Tyler Goodson and receivers Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Tyrone Tracy Jr. setting the pace. We saw a taste of their speed being put to good use in the Hawkeyes’ 49-24 Holiday Bowl rout of USC.

Mix in what’s expected to be a veteran, stable offensive line and rock-solid pass-catchers in Brandon Smith and Nico Ragaini, and it’s no wonder Brian Ferentz sounds cautiously optimistic about what this team can do. We haven’t even mentioned Sam LaPorta, who can be at least “Hockenson Lite” at tight end.

“I think coaching is 99% players,” Brian Ferentz said, knowing he has some good ones. "… Any place on the field, the idea is to put as much pressure as possible on the defense. I'm hoping we're getting to that point.”

But …

“Without a guy to distribute the ball to all those guys, none of that’s going to work,” Ferentz continued. “So that’s all going to be contingent on Spencer (Petras) and what he can do. And so far, I think he’s handled it pretty nicely.”

Petras is indeed the key ingredient to whether the Hawkeyes can start fast and finish strong in this Big Ten-only, coronavirus-shortened season. Petras (6-foot-5, 231 pounds) has the full confidence of his teammates and possesses infectious leadership qualities.

The head coach, too, is tempering enthusiasm.

“We feel really good about him,” Kirk Ferentz said. “But the facts are, he … really hasn’t played any significant snaps.”

Petras will feel the heat early. Iowa opens with two Big Ten West games — Purdue in the Oct. 24 opener, then home against Northwestern — that could spark or torpedo division-title hopes in a hurry.

While that’s a lot riding on Petras' right shoulder, the Ferentzes shouldn't try to play it safe. They must know his year’s defense will be a work in progress, with new starters at linebacker and an unproven pass rush.

The offense needs to carry this team, and it can.

In 2018, Iowa outscored its opponents by an average of almost two touchdowns — 31.2 points to 17.8. Only two of Ferentz’s 21 teams have enjoyed wider gaps — 2002 (which went 11-1 and tied for the Big Ten title) and 2008 (which went 9-4 but probably should have gone 11-2 … much like in 2018).

The pieces are there for the 2020 Hawkeyes to be something similar. The trust should be, too.

“We have a lot of players that can do a lot of different things,” running back Mekhi Sargent said. “And, I think Coach Brian is doing a really good job with the playbook and utilizing all of us to the fullest.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.