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Leistikow: Hawkeyes have an identity crisis on offense after second straight loss

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Four times in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s game against Northwestern at Kinnick Stadium, the Iowa offense got the football with a one-point deficit.

Four times, Brian Ferentz’s offense fizzled in colossal fashion.

Despite having one of the best field-goal kickers in the country, the Hawkeyes weren't good enough to once give Keith Duncan’s right leg a chance in a 21-20 loss that has to rank right up there in a long line of frustrating outcomes against the Wildcats.

Iowa’s summary of seven second-half drives says it all: Punt, interception, punt, punt, interception, turnover on downs, interception.

Yes, it looked just as pathetic as it reads in print.

“They finished the game,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said, “and we weren’t able to. That's kind of where it's at right now.

“We certainly have a lot of improvement to make.”

Spencer Petras, left, completed just 17 of his final 39 passing attempts and was intercepted three times in the second half of a 21-20 loss to Northwestern.

And Iowa's offense went 0-for-4 in the critical fourth quarter … a familiar finishing refrain against Pat Fitzgerald, who improved to 9-6 against Iowa.

On the Hawkeyes' first possession, Alaric Jackson’s unnecessary block-in-the-back penalty derailed Iowa’s fourth consecutive unsuccessful drive of the second half. Instead of Iowa plowing into field-goal range on a nice catch-and-run by Sam LaPorta, it was punting the ball away from its own 46 with 10½ minutes left.

Then after an interception by Jack Koerner that had Iowa in business again, Tyler Goodson raced for nine quick yards to Northwestern’s 27. Then Goodson was stuffed for a loss on a run that had no chance. Spencer Petras’ third-down answer had too much mustard on a throw to LaPorta, and it was intercepted off a deflection by Brandon Joseph — his second theft of the second half.

A third move into Wildcats turf was buoyed by a fourth-down quarterback sneak and a pass-interference call. But after a short grab by Brandon Smith put Iowa at Northwestern’s 46, Petras threw three straight incompletions, none of them having much chance for success. That gave Northwestern the ball with 1:55 to play and a chance to seal the game.

But Phil Parker’s defense stood strong, as it did for much of the second half. A nifty scoop and return from Charlie Jones gave Iowa the ball at its own 18 with 1:29 left.

Thus, a fourth chance for the Hawkeyes to steal this one.

Then ... thud.

Petras made a nice 10-yard scramble to get things started, but on first-and-10 his throw over the middle was picked off by linebacker Blake Gallagher.

Game over.

That sealed the Hawkeyes’ fifth straight second half against a Big Ten opponent without scoring a touchdown. Iowa, which once led 17-0, gained 104 second-half yards on 36 plays.

“They outplayed us in the second half today,” Kirk Ferentz said. “We turned the ball over a couple times. It was a team loss. We didn’t really do anything well enough consistently to expect to win a Big Ten game. And that’s two weeks in a row.”

One team had a clear offensive identity in this one.

The other has an identity crisis.

Northwestern delivered its usual, persistent brand.

If you watched the game, it felt like the Wildcats were just chewing up the Hawkeyes with the running game. In a way, they were. But it’s not like there were gaping holes. Northwestern had 60 rushing attempts and averaged just 2.4 yards a pop.

Iowa, meanwhile, averaged 3.3 yards a carry — but only tried to run the ball 23 times, including quarterback scrambles, and attempted 51 passes.

Brian Ferentz, the fourth-year offensive coordinator, reiterated at media days that Iowa is a run-first team, but it hasn’t looked that way after two weeks and two maddening losses.

“We didn’t run the ball effectively enough today … that’s something we’re going to have to address,” Kirk Ferentz said. “I’ll go on record and say we don’t want to play that way.”

Petras completed nine of his first 11 passes, a splendid start after last week's tough finish in a 24-20 loss at Purdue. But the sophomore went 17-for-39 the rest of the way to finish 26-for-50 for 216 yards and the three picks.

“Credit to Northwestern today. They played really well,” Petras said. “It’s Big Ten football, they’re a really good team. Defensively, they got us.

“Really disciplined team. Very well-coached.”

Petras said Northwestern was more aggressive after halftime against Iowa’s run game and did a better job taking away Ihmir Smith-Marsette (seven catches, 84 yards).

“The best thing they did (was) they disguise things really well,” Petras said. “They started rolling down to Ihmir to try to take him away. Those two-minute drives, they played a lot of eight-man coverages and forced you to earn it all the way down the field.”

Petras kept saying during postgame interviews, “We’re close. We’re really close.”

But close to what?

All these weapons at the skill positions, but seemingly no in-game cohesion in using them, starting with the coordinator.

What’s the identity of Iowa’s offense?

Not good enough.

“A lot of potential,” Smith-Marsette said. “We’ve just got to add production to it.”

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.