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Leistikow: Iowa's sluggish second halves won't cut it in the Big Ten West

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

When facing familiar opponents, as will be the case when Iowa’s football team meets nemesis Northwestern on Saturday at Kinnick Stadium, the importance of coaching adjustments is magnified.

That’s a topic Fran McCaffery has often discussed as his Iowa basketball team annually navigates a conference filled with some of the best coaches in America. When teams know each other so well (particularly in hoops, when Big Ten teams can clash as many as three times in one winter), the in-game moves a coaching staff makes can mean the difference between winning and losing.

You would get little argument that Iowa was outcoached in the second half of Saturday’s 24-20 football loss at Purdue. The Hawkeyes went into their 20-minute halftime break with a 17-14 lead, having gained control of the line of scrimmage.

But when the third quarter began, Iowa sputtered. And Purdue gradually gained steam.

The frustrating second half for the 0-1 Hawkeyes raised a glaring issue that’s becoming a trend. They’ve struggled to get to the finish line.

Kirk Ferentz's teams have not scored a third-quarter point in their last five Big Ten Conference games, including Saturday at Purdue.

That is underscored by this alarming sentence: Iowa has not scored a second-half touchdown in any of its last four Big Ten games. In 21 second-half possessions in those four games (not counting one set of kneel-downs), Iowa has produced zero touchdowns, five field goals, two lost fumbles, two turnovers on downs and 12 punts.

Maybe just as staggering, Iowa has not scored a single third-quarter point in any of its last five Big Ten games (all against familiar West Division foes).

Yikes. That’s not what you want coming out of the locker room.

Now, the good news is that Iowa has won three of its last four Big Ten games. The bad news is that even in the wins, Iowa hasn’t shown an ability to put opponents away.

A quick review of those four games and the hiccups that were encountered …

Minnesota, 2019 — Iowa followed its stirring first half (with a 20-6 lead) by gaining just 69 second-half yards. It gave Minnesota the ball back with 1:52 to play but survived, 23-19.

Illinois, 2019 — Five second-half possessions netted just two Keith Duncan field goals as Iowa held on, 19-10. Sadly, that six-point output marks Iowa’s best second half in its last four conference games.

Nebraska, 2019 — Iowa looked like it would run away from the disheveled Cornhuskers. But after taking a 24-10 halftime lead, its first six second-half possessions went punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, fumble. Duncan’s last-second field goal from 48 yards bailed out the Hawkeyes, 27-24.

Purdue, 2020 — Five second-half possessions, seven penalties, three paltry points, one maddening loss.

That’s not how you need to finish if you want to win the Big Ten West.

Coach Kirk Ferentz explained this week that the Hawkeyes’ halftime routine hasn’t changed much in his 21-plus years. Coaches on offense and defense meet separately, then communicate any changes to the players.

“I'll usually stick my head in if there's something that's hurt us defensively. Just kind of make sure we're all on the same page there,” said Ferentz, a former offensive line coach. “And then I'll sit in with the offense.

“Basically, we talk about what we saw, what we think might be good. And then it's a matter of getting out there and communicating that to the players.

“That process is really going on for 60 minutes during the whole game. When the guys come over to the bench, there's a lot of discussion going on. The key thing is whatever it is you're deciding, it really doesn't matter unless you communicate that well to your team. And then you've got to hope you're right on your decisions and the adjustments that you do make.”

Are Iowa’s coaches making the wrong adjustments? Are they too slow to react to opponents’ tweaks? They would know more than any of us. It would be human nature, though, to feel good about where things stand at halftime when you’re ahead … and then to maybe be more content to stick with the status quo and become more reactionary than aggressive.

At minimum, Iowa's sluggish second halves are a troubling trend and something to monitor in Saturday’s game against 1-0 Northwestern.

And if there’s any matchup filled with familiarity (and thus, with a focus on in-game coaching adjustments), it’s Iowa vs. Northwestern. The league’s two longest-tenured coaches in Ferentz and Pat Fitzgerald will meet for the 15th straight year Saturday. The ESPN-televised matchup is set for 2:30 p.m. CST at Kinnick Stadium.

Fitzgerald owns an 8-6 edge against Ferentz.

In each of the last four years, Iowa has led Northwestern at halftime. But the Wildcats have outscored Iowa after halftime, 52-30, and won three of those four meetings.

Objectively and historically speaking, Iowa coaches don't need to change what they've been doing in the first half. But they can't be afraid to shake up their routine in the second.

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.

A closer look at Iowa's last four Big Ten games

First-half points — Iowa 74, Opponents 27

Second-half points — Opponents 40, Iowa 15

First-half yards — Iowa 956, Opponents 667

Second-half yards — Opponents 770, Iowa 505