Leistikow: 3 reasons why it's too early to worry about the University of Iowa's offense
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Good luck finding a smarter guy on the Hawkeye football team than Zach VanValkenburg. He’s a sixth-year senior with a master’s degree in Eastern European Studies who can speak Russian. He came to the University of Iowa three years ago after graduating from Division II Hillsdale College to push himself, athletically and academically, with the goal of one day working for the U.S. Department of State.
All of that is to say, VanValkenburg operates with the bigger picture in mind. So, his opinion shared Tuesday about the meaning of 2-0 Iowa’s lofty national ranking (No. 5 Associated Press, No. 7 USA TODAY Coaches’ Poll) carries some weight.
It’s probably one we should listen to.
"Why are people thinking we are good? It’s because we’ve beaten two ranked teams (in then-No. 17 Indiana and then-No. 10 Iowa State)," VanValkenburg said. "But at the end of the day, those preseason rankings were all just shots in the dark. There’s not enough data to go off."
In other words, maybe we’ll find out by the end of the year that Indiana was more of a 4-8 team than 9-3. Or maybe we’ll find out that Iowa State was more 6-6 than 10-2. Or maybe both programs will yet match or exceed their preseason billing.
For now, Iowa is getting a lot of credit for both wins. It hasn't been ranked this high this early in a season since 1985.
"I think we’re a good team. I think we have a long way to go," VanValkenburg added. "I think our ceiling is pretty high. … As long as we continue to move in that direction, we’ll be a great team."
So, even though a few dozen voters who may or may not watch Iowa’s games think the Hawkeyes are a top-seven team nationally, that doesn’t mean they actually are — or will prove to be. Two games are not enough to make a proper judgment.
"The only ranking we care about is in January," cornerback Riley Moss said, "after the games have been played."
Makes sense, right?
Well, the same rationale can be used when discussing Iowa’s offense through two weeks.
The Hawkeyes’ No. 126 ranking in total offense (238 yards a game) out of 130 FBS teams looks concerning on the surface.
But it’s way too early to panic about the offense. Here are three reasons why.
- Iowa always has cared way more about points than yards.
- The offense really hasn’t tried to do much in either second half.
- The offensive line will continue to get better.
Let's take a closer look.
Iowa always has cared way more about points than yards.
The Hawkeyes’ scoring average of 30.5 points actually ranks No. 67 nationally, and that’s pretty impressive considering the caliber of defenses we think they were playing. They’ve been opportunistic in scoring points off short fields. Sure, the defense has scored three touchdowns that contribute to that number. But remember, those scores subtract a possession from the offense, too.
Maybe this upcoming statement stems from covering Kirk Ferentz’s teams for too long: But total yardage is often a meaningless stat. In the 2019 Holiday Bowl, Iowa gained a modest 328 yards but scored 49 points. Earlier that year, Iowa was outgained by 141 yards by then-No. 7 Minnesota but won, 23-19.
And how about this nugget: The past three times Iowa has been held to 200 or fewer yards of offense ... it won the game. And it scored 27 points each time — the 2017 Pinstripe Bowl, the 2019 Outback Bowl and Saturday’s win at Iowa State.
The 27-22 Outback win vs. Mississippi State was something Brian Ferentz discussed at length during our 3-hour summer podcast. The Iowa offensive coordinator knew at the time yards would be tough to come by against a defense with three first-round NFL Draft picks, so the plan was to limit turnovers and take targeted shots on offense and lean on a big-play defense.
You could see that exact approach play out in a raucous environment in Ames on Saturday.
"We're keeping score," Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday. "So, we're trying to win each and every week. How you do it doesn't matter to any of us. It's just about what can we do to be successful."
The offense really hasn’t tried to do much in either second half.
Subtract four quarters of statistics from any offense through two games, and you’ll get skewed numbers. After taking a 31-3 halftime lead vs. Indiana, Iowa took its foot off the second-half gas. After a strong second quarter (23 plays, 136 yards) to build a 14-3 lead at Iowa State, Iowa retreated into extreme safe mode to lean on a defense that was repeatedly stifling the Cyclones.
"I know it's not very popular," Kirk Ferentz said, " … but there's a lot to be said for that (style) if you're smart with the football."
In my eyes, looking at Iowa’s first-half numbers provides a more telling picture about the ability of this offense.
Against Indiana and Iowa State, Iowa gained 341 combined yards on 69 first-half plays and scored four offensive touchdowns and one field goal. Those aren’t world-beating numbers over the course of a game, but for Iowa, those are usually winning numbers.
Absolutely, you’d like to see better second-half stats than the 38 rushing plays for 81 yards and 6-for-17 passing for 54 yards through two games. But even so, Iowa has a 13-10 scoring advantage in second halves.
One last point on this: Remember what happened when Iowa jumped out to a 17-0 lead against Northwestern in 2020? Brian Ferentz let Spencer Petras throw 50 passes in what became a 21-20 home loss. Perhaps the younger Ferentz learned from last year's Week 2 loss to deliver this year's Week 2 win. In Ames, he stuck with the running game and tried to chew as much clock as possible with a double-digit lead.
The yardage wasn't pretty, but, for the Hawkeyes, the W was gorgeous.
The offensive line will continue to get better.
It’s totally fair to be concerned about quarterback play. But remember, Petras has won eight straight starts — seven by double digits — and has thrown just two interceptions in those 32 quarters. He’s not being asked to take over games, considering Iowa holds a significant advantage in punting and defense against most opponents.
My advice: Let’s see how Petras and this offense stand after the next three weeks with games against Kent State (2:40 p.m. CT Saturday, Big Ten Network), Colorado State and Maryland (which currently has the nation's No. 9 defense).
One reason to be upbeat is that young offensive linemen are gaining valuable experience, and now fifth-year senior guard Kyler Schott — a highly-ranked blocker by Pro Football Focus — is returning to the field. Kirk Ferentz confessed Tuesday that he wasn't sure an O-line with three new starters could withstand back-to-back stout defenses.
"I'm really kind of pleased, actually, with the way the guys have held up,” the head coach shared.
For what it’s worth, Ferentz voiced optimism that the offense would take positive steps.
"What I do feel good about right now, I feel like we've got the right guys (on offense) after going through a couple game weeks, going through the August preseason," Ferentz said. "I think we have enough to end up being a good offensive team. We're not there yet, but I think we have that (personnel).
"Hopefully, I'm right. And we'll find out here in the next month or so where we're at."
Bottom line: It’s too early to say Iowa is a top-five team. It’s also too early to say Iowa has a lousy offense.
We can say, though, that Iowa is 2-0 and has outscored two ranked opponents by 38 points. That’s the most important stat so far.
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.